North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

O’Neal for Ford deal works both ways for Raps

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Taken at face value, trading away a starting point guard, a good backup centre and a first round draft pick for an oft-injured centre doesn’t seem like a great move.

But trading away TJ Ford, Rasho Nesterovic and the 17th pick is a shrewd move by Toronto Raptors GM Bryan Coangelo.

For most of last season, but especially in the playoffs, the Raptors found themselves with two glaring problems. First was the lack of a solid big man, which centre Rasho Nesterovic was not, Andrea Bargnani did not want to be.

Sure, their outside shooting style worked well enough for most of the year: they won 41 games and the sixth seed in the playoffs. They even won against the likes of Orlando, Portland and Boston.

But look a little closer at those box scores. For example, in that 114-112 win over Boston, the Raptors shot an exceptional 15 of 21 from outside, with Carlos Delfino hitting five of five. But their inside game was the opposite – they only grabbed four offensive boards, the same number as Ray Allen.

In the playoffs against Orlando, this was especially obvious. All throughout those five games, Toronto had no answer to the Magic’s Dwight Howard, costing them the series. Their outside shooting was matched by Orlando and they didn’t have the inside game to compensate.

Surely, this is one of the major reasons that the Raptors underachieved. If you go by their Pythagorean record, a tool that goes by points scored and allowed, the Raps should have won 49 games, not 42.

That was major fault number one. Number two was their point guard situation.

When Atlanta Hawks centre Al Horford knocked Ford down on a drive to the basket in December –injuring Ford enough to be removed on a stretcher – it looked like the Raptors season could be hitting an unfortunate and early end, say nothing about the long-term effects the injury would have on Ford.

But a funny thing happened. Backup Jose Calderon, who by that point was splitting time with Ford and coming off the bench, blossomed as a starter. While he may have lucked into a starting role, he seemed to be a linchpin for the Raptors, who began to thrive.

They won three of the next four games, and went on to win eight games in January, including a dramatic double overtime win over Portland. Calderon, he with the deft outside touch and the great passing skills, had improved dramatically from the previous season and was a major part of the Raptors success.

If Ford didn’t come back, the Raptors might have been okay. But he came back, and it threw the Raptors off their game.

When the Raptors traded for Ford, he was supposed to be the starting PG and he was paid appropriately: to the tune of $8 million, says basketball-reference.com. But with the great play of Calderon, would it be fair to immediately stick Ford back in the starting position?

But that’s what the Raptors did. Not starting put Ford in a funk, and it was the last thing the Raptors needed late in the season, when they were battling for a playoff spot.

Both Ford and Calderon was a logjam, and an especially bad one to have. Ford had become temperamental, had a reputation for taking bad shots and was an injury risk. Calderon, who was again coming off the bench, but looked to be the better point guard, was a free agent after the season.

Both wanted to start, and the one who didn’t was likely gone. What to do?

A couple days before the draft, trade rumours began to fly. One was TJ to the Suns for Boris Diaw, a trade that wouldn’t have fixed much. Where would Diaw, a combo forward-guard, fit in the rotation? And what of his reputation for vanishing in big games?

Another was TJ going to the Knicks for Jamal Crawford. This trade would’ve helped the Knicks, who need a point guard, but not the Raptors, who don’t need another swingman.

But the rumour that became fact was Ford, Nesterovic, a player to be named later and the Raptors first round pick to the Indiana Pacers, who would send Jermaine O’Neal in return.

In the past three seasons, O’Neal’s stock had fallen considerably. While he had played in six all-star games and had made three All-NBA teams from 2001-02 to 2003-04, he had now played a full season since 2003-04. Plus, he still had the stigma from the Brawl at the Palace, which helped foster a reputation as a hothead.

In 2007-08, his numbers looked like this: 1206 minutes played (his lowest since becoming a starter), 225 FG (same), 283 rebounds (the same, and close to his lowest ever) and 87 blocks (he once had 228 blocks in a season).

So, what was Colangelo thinking? Surely, he could get better value for TJ, couldn’t he?

But, the more one thinks about this deal, the more sense it makes – since it works both ways.

First off, if O’Neal stays healthy, he dramatically improves the Raptors frontcourt. Instead of playing centre, Bosh can move to forward and Bargnani can come off the bench. Suddenly, the Raptors starting five will likely be this: Chris Bosh, O’Neal, Calderon, Delfino and Anthony Parker.

That means they have an inside game that matches against Orlando – by putting O’Neal in the low post against Howard. And they still have a good outside game with Delfino, and Calderon.

That means their bench improves too: Jamario Moon becomes their sixth man, and the pressure of Bargnani is turned down considerably. Plus, it solves their PG logjam, too.

But, like I said before, it works the other way too: if O’Neal isn’t healthy.

Why’s that? His salary, which maxes out at $23 million in two seasons, expires in 2009-10.

That’s the year that more then a few marquee players – such as LeBron James – become free agents. And while it doesn’t give the Raptors a lot of wiggle room now, it gives them the space to make a big splash in a couple seasons.

Remember, it was big, hefty deals that helped a lot of teams make big splashes this season with trades. Like Keith Van Horn’s expiring contract, which helped to bring Jason Kidd to the Dallas Mavericks.

So if O’Neal’s a bust and the Raptors are in good shape, his expiring deal could be worth a lot to a rebuilding team, and bring in some young talent. Or they could hang on him and sign a major talent or two.

Simply put, this trade works both ways. It’s a slick move by Colangelo, and it’s one the Raptors will be glad to have made, no matter what happens.

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Written by M.

June 28, 2008 at 5:50 pm

Posted in NBA

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