July 13th, 2008 – Dr. Anklesnap
I’m not sure if it is because the franchise is the only one not located in the USA, or if it is because people consider the Toronto Raptors to still be in some sort of post-Vince Carter rebuilding era; but it’s time to WAKE UP people. Stop sleeping on the Toronto Raptors. There has been a lot of attention and media coverage over the past few weeks on the blockbuster trade that sent Indiana Pacers big man Jermaine O’Neal to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for point guard T.J. Ford. Unfortunately the majority of the attention has been focused on the fact that a big name player and former perennial all-star is being moved, and not enough attention on the fact that if O’Neal is as healthy as he claims to be lately, this makes the Toronto Raptors an immediate and legitimate contender in the East!
Yes you heard me correctly; the Toronto Raptors will have a legitimate shot next year at winning the Eastern Conference! Yes, I’m aware that the defending champion Boston Celtics and the perennial favorite Detroit Pistons are still in the Eastern Conference next year. The Raptors last year were never really considered to be in contention come playoff time because of their two biggest weaknesses; rebounding and interior defense. They suffered in these areas mainly because they tried to force Andrea Bargnani out of his comfort zone and turn him into a defensive rebounder and shot blocker. Clearly not his forte. This was quite obvious, as their level of play even improved defensively when Bargnani was taken out of the game in favor of the over-the-hill Rasho Nesterovic who was much more suited to that type of task.
Bryan Colangelo’s move for O’Neal will be effective on a variety of fronts. Any time you can trade a player who’s skill set you have in abundance, for a player whose skill set fills a gap in your team that is sorely needed; you’ve made a good trade. The Raptors already had a great young point guard in Jose Calderon, and they clearly lacked the paint protector required to stop even the weakest of offensive teams on a consistent basis near the bucket. The Raptors franchise player and leading scorer was playing double duty as the team’s workhorse in the paint, and the wear and tear on his body was too much to handle for an 82 game season + playoffs. It certainly was too much to ask of Bosh during their first round playoff series to shut down a beast as huge as Dwight Howard on the defensive end, and turn around night in and night out and carry the offensive load as well.
As we have seen the last two years from the 29 year old Jermaine O’Neal in Indiana, even with a bum knee he can still rebound the ball in double figures nightly and block enough shots to make slashing guards think about it on the way to the goal. With O’Neal claiming that he will be at 100% health wise come training camp, the Raptors must be salivating at the thought of being able to give the defensive assignment of a Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Andrew Bogut, Zydrunas Ilgauskas etc. to Jermaine O’Neal and let Chris Bosh focus on punishing the opposition with his variety of offensive weapons.
We all have seen how Bosh has developed over the last two seasons into a huge triple scoring threat with this sweet jumper, footwork in the post, and quick first step in his face-up game. What Toronto is also hoping for is the potential offense they could get from Jermaine O’Neal returning to form by regaining his health. O’Neal is only a few short years removed from being a perennial all-star and contender for the leagues most valuable player award. There are very few, if any, players in the game right now that have the footwork on the block that Jermaine O’Neal had when he was healthy. If he can even get to 80% of the offensive threat he was 4 years ago, the Raptors will have one of the best inside duo’s the league has seen in years.
However, that still is not the reason I think the Raptors will be a contender next year. What will happen if O’Neal and Bosh dominate the blocks and rebound is that it will free up the Raptors perimeter players for wide-open looks. That could be a very lethal combination considering the Raptors have some of the best shooters the NBA has to offer in Jason Kapono (2-time NBA three point shooting champion), Jose Calderon (52% FG, 43% 3-pt, 91% FT), and Anthony Parker (48% FG, 44% 3-pt, 82% FT). You have to remember that the Raptors back court put those kind of numbers up last year with only one real inside threat drawing the defensive attention in Chris Bosh. Add Jermaine O’Neal as a player some teams may need to possibly even double-team on some occasions and the Raptors backcourt could be having more time to load up from beyond the arc then they can imagine. Although Andrea Bargnani did not shoot a great % from beyond the arc this year, he clearly established himself as a player that you need to pay attention to from the perimeter when he gets hot. He is a very streaky shooter that will have a lot more opportunities to catch fire from the perimeter with Jermaine O’Neal handling all the grunt work in the paint that Bargnani was forced to take on this past season due to the Raptors roster holes.
The player I think will benefit the most from the acquisition of Jermaine O’Neal, is Jose Calderon. One of Calderon’s greatest strengths is decision making with the ball. Everyone is always looking at the statistics and trying to compare Calderon to Steve Nash. The one area I really feel that Calderon is similar to Steve Nash is his far above average decision making with the ball and his ability to keep the dribble alive in almost any situation. Adding another strong interior presence with good hands in O’Neal, to the disposal of a slashing Jose Calderon it will wreak havoc on the Raptors opposition. Calderon has already showed his great strength in slashing to the cup and making nifty drop passes to Bosh, kick outs to the perimeter shooters, or finding open space for the lay-up when no defender closes out strong on his penetration to the goal. With O’Neal drawing attention from the defenders who will not be so easy to commit to help defense on a slashing Calderon his decision making abilities will serve him well with more options.
If there is one knock on the Raptors right now, it could be their depth. Without players such as Jorge Garbojosa, Carlos Delfino, and Juan Dixon coming off the pine next year to supply the energy and scoring punch every contender needs; the ultimate success of the Raptors may depend on the development of Andrea Bargnani and last years high-flying surprise rookie Jamario Moon.
Will the Raptors be the surprise heavyweight contender of the NBA next year? Only time will tell, but I wouldn’t want to stand in front of their right hook.