What He Really Needs Is A Ring (Part 3)

War And PeaceWell, 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.

The BrawlIt 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.

Michael BradleyWhile 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)

O'Neal Blocks Tyrus ThomasWhile 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..

Bargnani dunksBy 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.

Shawn MarionOn 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?

Smothering DefenseColangelo 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.

6 thoughts on “What He Really Needs Is A Ring (Part 3)

  1. Looking forward to Part 4. Until then, I’d like to pick your brain on something. I have a few points of contention with Doug Smith’s opinion on the Carroll-Banks rumor, but with Doug being Doug, I’d much rather debate with you.

    I need to set some ground rules first:

    A) If Banks does get moved for Carroll, I won’t lose any sleep.

    B) If Banks doesn’t get moved, I won’t lose any sleep.

    C) I would prefer to hold onto Banks until next season.

    It seems to me that Doug is being somewhat obtuse in his opinion. I agree with him when he asks (and I paraphrase), “how do you know there’s another deal out there?” What ifs are a dime a dozen and if a deal makes sense then it should be made. However, I disagree with the basis for his conclusion.

    He keeps stating that teams will not want to add salary due to the free agent sweepstakes of 2010. This assumes two things: 1) that Banks can only be moved between now and the offseason, and 2) that Banks can only be moved for a player on a smaller salary.

    My biggest contention is with #1 since #2 kind of goes in hand with the whole “how do you know there’s another deal out there?” bit. The FA sweepstakes is what it is, but how does it now also affect what teams will do after that offseason, or at least for the 27+ teams that do not land one of the big 3?

    Since teams are free to modify their luxury tax obligations via moves up until a certain time (I’m not sure when the deadline is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not before the trade deadline), teams will still find moving a bigger salary for a smaller salary attractive, and if it was our intention to receive better talent for financial reasons, then it’s more likely to happen if the salary is larger anyway.

    And then there are the seasons 2011-2012 and onward. There will still be teams needing relief, and the 2010 offseason has no (direct) impact on teams that would want to dump a longer contract for an expiring one. Or am I missing something here?

    If Doug had simply said, “hey, you never know what’s available, and this deal makes sense so why wait,” I’d be totally on board It’s what he added after that confuses me, and it seems like a repeat of O’Neal for Marion again.

    (continued in comment 2)

  2. In case you don’t remember, Doug made a point of supporting the O’Neal trade because it was “low-risk”. If the O’Neal experiment did not work out, his 2009-2010 salary would be valuable to teams wanting to clear the books for the free agent sweepstakes, or worst-case scenario, would just expire, giving us more cap room. I was of the same mind.

    But as soon as Marion was rumored to head to Toronto for O’Neal, he completely abandoned the previous view and argued that it was equally valuable for teams to clear cap space for the 2009-2010 offseason, where FAs like Kobe, Boozer and Odom would be available, or some such.

    Again, I agreed with him that if keeping O’Neal for 2009-2010 would result in the same lackluster team, then moves needed to be made immediately and not after Bosh has decided to leave. But I was hugely turned off by the way he supported his view. It was clear (especially now, in hindsight) that this offseason’s crop would not hold a candle to next offseason’s allure, not when its quality relied on Kobe to exercise his ETO, on teams and players to not exercise their options, and on teams not matching on their RFAs. Few teams would be interested in investing in a situation with so many ifs.

    The other argument Doug made was that even if we didn’t trade Marion away by the trade deadline, we could either do a S&T or simply let him expire and use the cap space on a free agent. I didn’t see it that way. I felt it would be difficult to do a S&T that would get us good value (and without hindsight, who could predict the Turkoglu-Marion four-team trade?), and the free agents wouldn’t be that great, especially not when one of the names being bandied about (Boozer) was that of a power forward, and where exactly would he fit in unless we were deciding to trade Bosh.

    And then there was the issue of cap space. You could imagine the surprise of many when after being convinced by Doug that we would have money to spend, we actually would not unless we renounced almost half the team, and then we’d lose our MLE. At that point, the options looked like Turkoglu at 10m+/year vs Marion + Parker + Delfino + MLE. Not exactly the rosy situation painted by Doug, made only worse by him frowning on the possibility of Odom joining the team. No Kobe, no Boozer, and no Odom. What was he so excited about then?

    I’m not at the point of calling him out, but at least these two times he’s sold an aspect of something, only to completely neglect it later. Really frustrating.

  3. Sorry, J. I was on a bit of a vacation. Hence why I haven’t updated in a week.

    Ya, Doug’s not one for debate, is he. As for his opinion, I don’t completely disagree with him. I think there is far too much handwringing over what is basically a scrub for scrub trade. That said, I think the trade is pretty good. Banks might not have played a minute all season. He’s not a very good distributor, he’s not a great shooter, so really the only thing that he bring is defense. He’s never really done ANYTHING in the league to warrant his contract.

    Carroll actually had a half decent showing in Charlotte where he showed his best, and possibly only attribute, shooting. Carroll doesn’t deserve his contract, either, but at least he has a valuable skill. I’d much rather have a SG who can shoot than a PG who doesn’t distribute.

    One thing that bugs me a little about Doug is he’s incredibly quick to shoot down ideas, but has been proven wrong on countless occasions. Yes, it’s true that we don’t know whether this is the only deal that might be offered for Banks, but that’s not really a good reason to take it. The reason to take it is that Carroll is a better player, a more valuable player for the Raptors and since his contract declines ever year, it really isn’t as bad as it initially looks.

    As I’ve stated a couple of times on my blog, I liked the O’Neal trade. I thought it was low risk because of when his contract expired. If you read my review of the O’Neal- Marion trade, you can see I wasn’t a big supporter of it. I felt it put far too many eggs in one basket. And the basket wasn’t a great one. As you stated, the free agent crop wasn’t spectacular and the cap room was dependent on gutting the team. The Raptors currently have a deep and talented team, but if Colangelo hadn’t pulled off a miracle, the Raptors bench might consist of Ukic, Banks, Evans, Nesterovic, O’Bryant and a bunch of scrubs. That’s a little scary, and not in a good way.

    It’s one reason I wanted the Raptors to try and sign Ariza (which they did apparently try and do). His cheaper contract would have allowed the Raptors to keep most of the free agents.

    And the sign and trade possibility is a little bogus. I can only remember of two sign and trades where the team doing the signing and trading away got anything good in return. Detroit getting Ben Wallace in return for Grant Hill (and no one would have guessed Wallace would become the player he did with Detroit), and Phoenix getting Boris Diaw and draft picks for Joe Johnson, and one of the Hawks owners attempted to block the deal because he felt they were giving up too much. Most of the time the team gets very little in return.

    One reason why I think Colangelo deserves another Executive of the Year Award is because he made so much of so little. And the reason was because trading for Marion put him in a bad position. I would have either kept O’Neal and had the cap room in 2010, or trade him away for a longer contract from a team desperate for more cap space (like the Spurs getting Richard Jefferson). Obviously there’s a reason Colangelo is the GM. While my option would have been a much safer route, his way turned into a boon for the Raptors.

    The O’Neal and Banks situations are very different, though. O’Neal’s contract was valuable because it expired at the right time, but also because O’Neal, while overpaid, can also be a valuable contributor. Banks’ contract expires a year after most teams will be under the cap. How many teams are really going to look to be dumping payroll in 2011 when they’ve already cleared cap room the year before? And the idea that expiring contracts are sought after is a misnomer. Every year, dozens of contracts expire. It’s silly to think that ALL of those contracts would be sought after.

    As for Doug, you’re not the only one who’s noticed him backtracking. I agree it’s a little frustrating, at times. I don’t think I’ve actually read him say that he was wrong. He usually ends up trying to justify or defend himself (like trying to say that O’Bryant was much more athletic than Johnson- just say you were wrong, Doug). Still, he’s right a good amount of the time and does know what he’s talking about, for the most part. Plus, he does put up with so complete morons, so I give him credit for that.

    Oh, and I’ll be posting the last part Monday night. Then I’ll be posting on a more regular basis.

  4. Haha, I hope you didn’t come back early from vacation for me. =)

    Anywho, I agree with you wholeheartedly on every point. And there is way too much hand-wringing over the Banks for Carroll rumor, especially when — aside from it being simply a rumor at this point — one of the key benefits is probably the money saved next year. I love all the people who speak on BC’s behalf regarding the so-called crippling effect of the last two years of Carroll’s deal, while BC clearly has one eye on next year’s potentially even lower luxury tax level.

    You’re right regarding O’Neal’s and Banks’ situations being different. I didn’t mean to compare the two as far as expiring contracts go, but just the way Doug handled each situation. Though when you ask, “how many teams are really going to look to be dumping payroll in 2011 when they’ve already cleared cap room the year before?”, I’d like to add a disclaimer. In regards to teams clearing cap room by simply inking fewer long-term contracts, I agree. One look at each team’s salary obligations shows a common trend: most teams drop below $25 mil for 2011-2012, so there’s definitely fewer trade possibilities. But there are still many existing deals that go beyond 2010-2011 and even 2011-2012.

    It’s obviously a futile exercise pondering trade possibilities while not knowing what we need and how team salaries will look after teams resign their players as well as new players, but I was thinking if the Carroll deal falls through for whatever reason, Banks would be relatively more useful than Carroll when packaged with either another expiring contract (i.e. Evans) or an actual asset (err, okay, I guess we don’t have that many unless we trade from our core), the way Rasho’s previous expiring contract made the O’Neal trade possible. Of course, you are right on the nail when you point out that everyone has expiring contracts, which is why I’d be okay with trading him now if the Raptors benefit one way or another. Either way, it’s the end of the bench, where inactive players tend to sit, so it’s no biggie.

    Regarding Doug, I actually don’t feel that great a need to have him own up to his so-called mistakes. I’ve noticed a common trend with posters asking him to apologize, even to the point of twisting his words. When you have how many readers and how many different opinions covering the entire gamut of possibilities, it’s like they say, “even a broken clock gets it right twice a day.” Considering how much he posts and on such a frequent basis, I find it in myself to forgive him even when he adds irrelevant little tidbits in his “blogger’s notes”, like “… and I don’t care”. But something that’s less of an opinion and more fact, like ramifications of a trade or cba-related stuff, I do expect him to get that stuff correct. Then again, I’ve noticed that journalists are far from experts on the more technical stuff.

  5. J,

    You seem to be my most loyal reader, so I felt it was best to get off that mountain and answer your question as soon as I could!

    I think Banks’ contract could be more valuable, but if it’s a choice between keeping Banks and his POSSIBLY slightly valuable contract, or getting Carroll, who actually might be somewhat valuable ON THE COURT, where it counts, I’d take Carroll.

    As for Doug, I give him some leeway because he does put himself on the line so much and he does know what he’s talking about, as opposed to most out there. I just wish he would get off his high horse once in a while in regards to people who disagree with him or have a different opinion. A few examples come to mind, like the guy who asked about the jersey number someone would wear. I personally don’t care, but some do and he was a little rude in his response. He was also a little rude whenever anyone brought up an early mock draft, as if he were above such things. Personally, I like looking at the mock drafts months before just to gauge who to keep my eye on. Sure, they’re usually wildly inaccurate, but they’re fun to read.

    Oh, well. Im just about to post my last part of my epic. Stay tuned…

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