What Can LeBron James Do for the Raptors?
If you're a fan of either the Miami Heat or the Toronto Raptors, you're likely nervous about the long-term status of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh respectively in regards to their free agency in 2010.
If you're a Cavaliers fan, you're just laying the groundwork for a mass suicide and burning every Jay-Z album you can find.
While it isn't certain that either of these three players will be packing their bags, LeBron and Chris Bosh seem most likely to leave, with LeBron ahead by a mile. I think at some point this year he's just going to come out in a Nets uniform.
We've seen teams lining up their cap space for the opportunity to sign James years prior to him even touching the market. Surely, signing him would change the fortunes of just about any team.
The Raptors dealt for O'Neal while ignoring their glaring hole on the wing position, basically adding a power forward to a team with two young power forwards as the cornerstones of the franchise already in place.
So why O'Neal? Why not deal for Gerald Wallace, Shawn Marion, or Boris Diaw?
O'Neal's contract expires just as James, Wade, and Bosh go on the market, at which point he becomes one of the biggest bargaining chips in the NBA.
His max salary would allow a team to shed over $25 million dollars in long-term contracts in any trade. The Raptors could be the recipients of a disgruntled all-star, long bloated contracts being compensated for by multiple draft picks, or just an overall talent upgrade from O'Neal.
While Larry Bird gave O'Neal to the Raptors at a sale price, the Raptors can hold the power of circumstances to get a lot more back for O'Neal than Ford, Nesterovic, and a first rounder. They could be in the conversation to get Josh Howard to Toronto, or perhaps a young wing player tied to a bad contract with first rounders.
Whatever the Raptors eventually get in return for O'Neal will measure how well Colangelo made out in trading for him in the first place. Everything O'Neal gives the Raptors is just icing on the cake.
In fact, one might argue that they're banking on him missing some time to get Bargnani some much-needed experience. Even if they had opted for a wing player this offseason, their overall talent level and Bargnani's level of play are far from where they need to be if they're going to be a legitimate force in the Eastern Conference.
Furthermore, O'Neal being in Toronto helps Bosh and Bargnani learn from a defensive-minded former All-Star. It gives Andrea a chance to guard a bruiser with good defensive skills in practice every day.
With Bargnani still here and finally playing better there is no way the Raptors traded for O'Neal thinking that he would be a Raptor long term.
Thus far in the season, Bargnani is earning his minutes. He's been excellent defensively, a little uninvolved offensively at times, rebounding well, and he's given the Raptors what some might argue Jermaine O'Neal was supposed to give them: a shot blocker.
So what does O'Neal give them? He gives them time to bring Andrea Bargnani along slowly and he gives them the legitimacy they've lacked for sometime, even if it comes in the form of a player whose best days are far behind him.
Most importantly, in eight months he'll give them the biggest bargaining piece they've ever had at the best time they could possibly have it.
At times, I have pondered the possibility that the Raptors would simply let O'Neal expire and try to target James themselves. Sadly, this just isn't realistically in the cards for the Raptors, or any other team not currently located within New York, Illinois, or California.
The Raptors can however do exactly what the Denver Nuggets did in their move to acquire Billups two days ago. They can trade a contract which is hopefully tied to a player who's a productive starter and, considering the timing, ask for much more than O'Neal the player is really worth.
The Raptors are in the odd situation of unintentionally helping a team which may end up being the team that makes Bosh an ex-Raptor. Hence, the earlier example of dealing for Josh Howard may not be the brightest move for the Raptors.
If they deal O'Neal next summer they'll have one year to convince Bosh that he should stick around and give up the fame and marketing potential of playing down south in his desired market.
If Bargnani develops, Bosh re-signs, and O'Neal nets the Raptors an attractive package, Toronto could be talking championship in 2009-2010.
The NBA is a business. O'Neal might find that out next summer, and hopefully Bosh doesn't teach the Raptors a similar lesson the summer after that.
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