Earlier this week, speculation ramped up on the potential of Tim Leiweke’s departure from his role as President and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment ("MLSE"). Those rumors were denied by Leiweke himself, but yesterday he had notified MLSE of his departure effective next June.
Because he is involved with all the teams that fall under MLSE's control, evaluating Leiweke’s overall performance in Toronto requires a consideration of things outside of what we care about here. Some people are saying that MLSE is disappointed that Leiweke over promised and under delivered, pointing specifically at his failure to push Toronto closer to landing an NFL team. But if we assess Leiweke strictly for what he's done for the Raptors, the feedback is much more positive.
Leiweke's presence and reputation brought credibility to a franchise that had missed the playoffs for five consecutive seasons and didn't seem to have a very promising roster to end that drought in the immediate future. Of course, achieving success somewhere else only earns you some much goodwill with the fan base unless you deliver results here. Once upon a time, Lenny Wilkens and Bryan Colangelo elevated the credibility of the franchise when they arrived too, but all that is forgotten because of how poorly they performed at their jobs towards the end.
If Leiweke had stayed beyond next year, we might have eventually gotten there with him as well. But his decision to leave so soon in many ways makes us appreciate what he's done even more. It feels like a huge blow to the franchise because he's already accomplished so much in such a short time.
As noted by Eric Koreen of the National Post:
Leiweke accomplishments: got 2016 NBA ASG; got Leafs to be smarter; Raps practice facility; marquee additions to TFC.— Eric Koreen (@ekoreen) August 21, 2014
You can add the hiring of Masai Ujiri to that list, and also establishing a relationship with Drake and helping to build the #WeTheNorth brand. All of these things come together to give the organization an identity. For the longest time, the Raptors have sought to position themselves as Canada's team. Last season, especially towards the end of the regular season and during the playoffs, it actually felt real and not just some empty slogan to stand behind.
The stability of having Leiweke and Ujiri as the backbone of this team was important too. The Raptors might quietly think they have a realistic shot at Kevin Durant when he hits free agency in 2016. And who really knows if they do, or if it matters what they think at this very moment. But it's not just about Durant. The Raptors have never been key players in free agency. But if they continue to improve, and the organization builds on the momentum of last season, by 2016, they might be an attractive destination for any of the key free agents on the open market. Maybe in two years, we'll be a piece or two away from becoming a championship contender. It's strange to think in those terms for this franchise, but it's not unrealistic.
For players to want to come and play in Toronto, or anywhere for that matter, they not only want a basketball situation that makes sense, but they want as few question marks as possible when it comes to the organization. Teams that are well run -- and coincidentally, the ones that are successful over a period of time -- have very defined structures in their front office and how they communicate to the ownership group. Over time, it's damaging for the team, especially one positioning itself to contend, to lack this continuity and clarity in how decisions are made. Leiweke's role and his presence provided the Raptors with the potential of being regarded as a stable, winning environment. His departure means the team will need to fill that void once again, to make sure that the positives from Leiweke's tenure here don't go to waste.
Of course, whoever the successor is may very well be a great hire, and make a positive impact on the Raptors, perhaps even greater than what Leiweke has done. That's not an unrealistic expectation either. But there's a risk that whoever succeeds Leiweke will upset what is currently in place.
In sports, uncertainty is constant but it's often a temporary state. A player will hit free agency, a general manger will be let go, a president and CEO will set an end date and move on. Incompetence can be much more permanent. A player leaves and a team takes years to recover, a general manager leaves behind a mess for the successor to fix and it ends up taking years, a president and CEO leaves and the person that follows ends up setting the franchise back.
Uncertainty is what we're dealing with now, but that has an end date. It's the potential that we may have to deal with an incompetent hire that makes Leiweke's departure a bit worrisome. We won't know the answer to the latter part until a year's time, or probably several years after that. It's a new problem for the franchise and the fans to worry about, but we've been here before. To be continued.