Well, this didn’t start out being an epic, but as you may have guessed by now, I don’t have a real problem when it comes to padding my word count. I also didn’t intend to take so long before I posted the third volume, er, part.
So with the Raptors coming off a somewhat disappointing season, with fewer wins (41), injuries and another first round exit, Colangelo needed to make some changes to the roster.
Ford had become a problem and Calderon was an unrestricted free agent who was getting interest from Miami. Nesterovic was not suited for starting anymore (if ever) and Bargnani was nowhere near ready to start at center (and a lot of people were questioning whether he would ever be ready). While Ford was a talented PG, he’d had two very serious back injuries in his short career. There was very serious questions about his durability as well as his attitude. Colangelo could not have predicted Calderon would have become the player he has when he signed Ford at, what many believed, was a fairly low cost for a top tier point guard. He couldn’t have predicted Horford would blindside him during a game in Atlanta, forcing him to miss nearly two months. Ford was now damaged goods but with $25 million owed to him over the next three years. The Raptors had to trade him, but it would be difficult to find a taker without taking back a player with question marks in return.
It was a few days before the draft when rumours started circulating that a trade was in the works for Indiana’s former All-Star center, Jermaine O’Neal. When the trade finally went down, it was T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic and the Raptors 17th pick for O’Neal. O’Neal was certainly a big name, as well as being a big player, however he’d struggled with injuries the previous few seasons and did not look anything like the player who, in 2004, placed third in MVP voting and made the 2nd Team All NBA. All his troubles can be traced back to the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl that ended up altering the careers of several players and doomed a once elite Pacers team to eventual perennial “lotterydom” (copyright pending).
The Pacers went from 61 wins to 44 (although still making it to the 2nd round of the playoffs where they lost against…the Pistons). They had the same roster, but the players weren’t the same. O’Neal, Artest and Stephen Jackson, the three main culprits in the brawl for the Pacers, all struggled. Artest was eventually traded to Sacramento for Peja Stojakovic, Jackson had more legal troubles, and O’Neal began to break down. In the four years since the brawl, O’Neal missed 120 games partly due to suspension, but mostly to injury. Just when O’Neal was about to enter his prime (the brawl happened when he was 26), his career started to unravel. The season before he was traded to the Raptors, he missed half the season to injury, scored the fewest points per game since the season before he won the Most Improved Player Award in 2001 and his leadership was being subtly questioned by GM, Larry Bird. If anyone was in need of a change of scenery, it was O’Neal.
While many armchair GM’s bemoaned the loss of a 17th pick, few apparently realized the chance of getting even a half decent player at that spot. In the previous 10 years, only 4 players picked in the 17th spot even ended up being rotation players, most being cut before their rookie contract even finished. The odds of getting a half decent player, especially in a draft that wasn’t thought to be particularly deep, were pretty small. Yes, there ended up being a few half decent players available, but Courtney Lee was possibly the best of the bunch and he only averaged 8.4 ppg. He would have added depth, but not made much of a difference in the win column. And is he really much better than Marco Belinelli or Antoine Wright? Long term, the Raptors didn’t miss out on much.
Author’s Note: There is a false belief among some fans that Colangelo was responsible for trading away the Raptors 2007 first round pick, as well. That pick was traded away by Glen Grunwald in 2002 for Lamond Murray.
Another problem some people had was with O’Neal’s contract. It was (and still is) massive. O’Neal signed the contract when he was an All-NBA center, but never approached that again, as mentioned earlier. Unfortunately for those armchair GM’s, the Raptors payroll ended up being only a little higher than it would have been without the trade. It’s not as if they would have had lots of money to use for free agents. They would still have been well over the cap.
THE THIRD SEASON (with Colangelo)
While many predicted the addition of O’Neal would be disastrous, it wasn’t as bad as many seem to think. Sure, the Raptors struggled almost immediately, and O’Neal never averaged even close to the 20 ppg he did during his best years, he did bring the three things that he needed to: An inside scoring threat, interior defense and above average play at the center position, something the Raptors hadn’t had since the turn of the century. While O’Neal didn’t live up to his contract, he didn’t really need to for the Raptors to succeed. What the Raptors needed was for players other than Bosh (who started off the year with MVP numbers) and O’Neal to play well. While Calderon put up good numbers, it was apparent fairly early that he was not healthy. And every other Raptor regressed. There were numerous games where Bosh and O’Neal were the only players who could find the basket.
Moon stopped rebounding like he did the previous season, and with his low basketball IQ, his ill-timed shots and decision making hurt the team. Moon suddenly came down with Vince Carteritus- the desire to be known for more of an all around game, which apparently means avoiding the paint like Allen Iverson avoids practice. Kapono was also apparently under the impression that shooting too much could give him tunnel carpal syndrome, so turned down more shots than Shawn Kemp turned down groupies. Since shooting was really the only thing he did well, it ended up not being a good idea. Even Anthony Parker, who had always been pretty consistent, started showing his age and watched his shots hit more iron than net. Bargnani, who is no one’s idea of a small forward, had to step into the spot for a period, not because he was finally playing well, but because the Raptors had no other choice. He didn’t exactly light the league on fire, and couldn’t guard anyone on the defensive end from that position. Still, he showed enough flashes that he was starting to look like not a total bust but he still showed the consistency of a 6 year old with A.D.D..
By the time O’Neal started missing time with knee problems, the Raptors seasons was already down the tubes. Former Coach of the Year, Sam Mitchell was a casualty of the horrid start to the season and was fired after an embarrassing loss to Denver that had the 12 year old ball boy scoring a career high. Canadian international basketball icon and Raptors assistant coach, Jay Triano, stepped into replaced him. While his impact wasn’t felt in the win/loss column, the team played better. Bargnani, who started at center in place of the injured O’Neal, finally seemed to `get it’.
The change in Bargnani was immediate. His first game starting at center he scored 26 and never looked back. He ended up averaging close to 20 ppg the rest of the season while shooting a vastly improved percentage. He even looked much better defensively, not having to guard quick wing players he could keep up with. His rebounding, though, was still a concern and after a strecth where he rebounded the ball half decently (although still not great), the last two months averaged fewer than 6 per game.
What allowed Bargnani to play most of the rest of the season at center was a trade that sent Jermaine O’Neal, having been healthy for about a month, to Miami for Shawn Marion. It was probably the least surprising trade in NBA history. Colangelo drafted Marion and he wasn’t fitting in very well in Miami. People were talking about the trade over a month before it happened. Miami President, Pat Riley, apparently wanted to see how O’Neal returned from injury before pulling the trigger. The final six games before the trade, O’Neal scored 20 or more points four times.
On the surface, Shawn Marion was exactly the type of player the Raptors needed. His athleticism was something that was in short supply with the Raptors, his rebounding would make up for the deficiencies Bargnani had, and his defense was something the Raptors desperately needed.
Author’s Note: While I didn’t dislike the trade, I wasn’t a huge fan of it. There were two things I was most worried about. The first is that although the Raptors needed upgrades in the defense, rebounding and athleticism departments, Marion didn’t address what I felt what their most glaring need: A guy who could break down the defense and initiate on offense. Calderon is a brilliant point guard who can run an offense (and that’s a lot more rare than a lot of fans realize) and shoot a high percentage, but he’s not the guy you want creating with 5 seconds left. He’s just not that type of player. And Bosh got far more criticism than he deserved when he was forced to take on role no other big man was asked to do, and that was to score at the end of close games. He did better than he should have, but still not nearly well enough.
The Raptors still struggled after the trade for Marion until, with 13 games to go, everything started to click. Calderon was finally healthy, Marion seemed much more comfortable, and the rest of the team seemed to finally understand what Coach Triano wanted. They strung off a season high 6 wins in a row and finished 9-4.
Unfortunately, it was too little, too late and they finished 6 games out of the playoffs with more questions entering the offseason than ever before. Would Colangelo trade Bosh if he felt he wouldn’t re-sign the next summer? Was Marion simply a short term rental? How would Colangelo return the Raptors to the post season? The most important question has rarely been asked. Can Colangelo build a Championship team?
Colangelo had a vaunted career in Phoenix and deserves all the accolades given to him, but for all their success, Phoenix never reached the Finals, let alone won a Championship. In the modern NBA (and even before), no team that did not at least have the ability to play excellent defense, has never won a Championship. In the last 25 years, only one Championship team did not have a player on either the first or second All Defensive Team. That was the year Miami won, and they had Alonzo Mourning and Dwayne Wade, who both got several First and Second Team votes, as well as Shaquille O’Neal, so they could definitely play some defense. Boston won their most recent Championship by turning themselves into the best defensive team in the league.
Phoenix, for all it’s offensive glory, was never much of a defensive team. Marion and Raja Bell were really the only above average defenders the team had and neither were ever very close to making the All-Defensive Teams.
The Raptors team that Colangelo built when he arrived in Toronto had some pretty good defensive players in Anthony Parker, Garbajosa, Carlos Delfino and even Nesterovic was better defensively than most gave him credit for. Still, none would ever be mistaken for Bruce Bowen.
Bosh, for all his great offensive skills, has never been known as a great defender in the NBA. In the Bejing Olympics, he showed the ability to be a very good defender, and did show pretty good defensive instincts coming into the league. Up until now, though, he has never seemed to put much focus on it. And while Bargnani is a better defender than he was his first couple of years, he’ll never get many, if any All Defense Team votes. Calderon is a better defender, when healthy, than many fans give him credit for, but he’s never going to be above average. He simply doesn’t have the strength or lateral mobility. So considering that no matter who Colangelo gets for the other two starting spots, at least 3 out of the five starters are not going to be above average defenders. It’s safe to say that the Raptors are not going to be an above average team defensively.
I never intended this to be four parts, but it looks like I will need one more `episode’ to wrap things up. The next post will be what Colangelo has done this summer and how that shapes the future for the Raptors.