In 07/08, the Raptors took a big step back from their '07 success, winning only 41 games and making the playoffs in the tepid Eastern Conference, where two squads with records under .500 made the playoffs (Philadelphia and Atlanta). There, Toronto faced off against an Orlando squad that totally destroyed them on the backs of a huge performance after monstrous games from Dwight Howard, who put down a pair of 20/20 performances to open the series and then another to close it out on his way to a series' average of 22.6 ppg and 18.2 rpg on 63.8% shooting.
This highlighted a long-standing problem for Toronto; the Raptors' abject lack of interior defense, as well as the fact that they continued to play Chris Bosh out of position at the center spot despite the fact that he's not physically equipped to handle a behemoth like Dwight with any reasonable hope for success. So with that in mind, Raptors' General Manager Bryan Colangelo acquired Jermaine O'Neal, formerly of the Indiana Pacers, in a deal that sent T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, Maceo Baston, and the 17th overall pick in the draft (which became Roy Hibbert) to the Pacers in exchange for the remaining two years of O'Neal's contract and the draft rights to Nathan Jawai, a big man from an Australian league.
What else have the Raptors done this off-season? They've finally brought Roko Ukic over; they signed veteran guard Willie Solomon, an undersized shooting
guard (6'1 or so) with a dangerous shot from beyond the arc. Colangelo also acquired Hassan Adams, an athletic combo guard noted for his defense and lack of a jumper.
So what does this mean for the Eastern Conference landscape? Well, that really depends on which Jermaine O'Neal shows up for the Toronto Raptors and for how long. JO has been in 206 of the 328 games his Pacers have played over the past four years. Some of that stems from the 25-game suspension he was handed for the 'Malice at the Palace' but the sentence was reduced to 15 games, and he still played only 44 games that year, missing an additional 23 games due to injury. He was voted in as a starting forward for the EC All-Star team the next year and didn't play because of injury, with Arenas replacing him. He missed the 2004 Olympics due to a knee injury.
In the three years that preceded that, he averaged about 20 and 10, with about 2.5 blocks per game to go with it. When he's healthy, Jermaine O'Neal is a dangerous interior defensive force both as a post defender and as a help defender because of his shot-blocking prowess. His offensive skills are a bit overrated; he's rarely reached the efficiency levels that would let him be called an elite offensive option, but he'd be something else for the Raptors to use, another guy comfortable creating his own shot against a double-team, and that cannot be ignored. So which JO will show up? For four years now, he's been saying the same things we've heard this summer: I've never felt better, I'm in the best shape of my life, I've lost some weight so I can be more mobile and put less stress on my knee, etc. These are tired refrains at this point, and Indiana was looking to move him for a reason. But if the Raptors can get 70+ games out of him, and he plays like the Jermaine O'Neal we last saw in 05-06, Toronto has a pair of frontcourt All-Stars and the supporting cast necessary to make some noise and maybe exit the first round for the second time in franchise history.
There are three especially promising results of the JO trade:
1) Jermaine O'Neal can score in the post.
2) Chris Bosh will be defending the 4, not the 5.
- and -
3) JO can block shots very, very well.
As far as scoring, O'Neal has been under league average in scoring efficiency in all but 3 seasons of his career and one of those was an injury-shortened season, which makes its validity questionable. The reason is his love affair with the jump shot. He's an accomplished and versatile isolation scorer in the post, so if the Raptors can convince him to stay under the foul line and go to a jump hook in the lane more often than his KG-imitation turnaround fallaway over his right shoulder from the left side, we should be seeing the 47-48% FG JO, who is much more effective.
This is a guy who was featured on the Better Post-Play DVD for Better Basketball and comes off as a fairly intelligent guy with a good grasp of basic post tactics, it's just that he likes his jumper too much. Given that Toronto already has a mass of abundance at perimeter shooting, I think he'll be forced to emphasize the post game, so the only major problem is that turnaround fallaway as opposed to long jumpers although he'll have the opportunity for those in pick-and-roll scenarios. This is another of those 'Which JO will Show?' moments, and it will determine how much impact he can really exert on this Toronto franchise.
My money say that we're not going to see a 20 ppg Jermaine O'Neal; if things go the way they should, he won't play more than 30-33 mpg and probably won't get his hands on the ball enough to score that much. If the Raptors can get him the ball for 12-15 shots per game, then that is probably the most comfortable balance between usage and restraint that they can find. If he produces between his usual averages at 45% (he fluctuates between 43 and 48% FG), then expect about 11 points per game off raw FGM and an overall scoring average of about 15-16 ppg. There's a catch, though; JO's FTM/FGA has gone down in each of his last 4 years, bottoming out under 0.250 FTM/FGA last year. He needs to be at 0.300 FTM/FGA for that to work.
But those are just arbitrary numbers; the idea is that the Raptors get him 12-15 shots a game, and if he stays healthy and plays smart, he should produce well enough down low to create a threat to the defense, which will attract a double-team sometimes and might even cause perimeter defenders to pinch in on him a little bit, opening things up for Kapono, Parker, and Calderon. Can he manage this? We'll soon find out; when he was healthy in '07, he only shot a hair under 44% FG, but he was drawing almost 7 FTA/g off under 17 shots a game, so it's possible that he can contribute in that manner. If O'Neal is bringing a semi-efficient 15 ppg to the Raptors' offense, that radically alters the dynamic in a positive way.
An underrated aspect of this move which is definitely positive is that Chris Bosh will not be playing center; the Raptors will probably run a 3-man platoon that heavily favors JO and Nathan Jawai, with some Kris Humphries in the mix, as well. Jawai need only play 8-10 minutes per game ,and if he deserves and gets more, so much the better for the Raptors because he's powerful and a decent shot-blocker. Meantime, Bosh gets to play against more perimeter-oriented forwards, which will improve his own defense since he won't have to guard the post as often. He showed in the Olympics that he can defend pretty well against rangy forwards who like to shoot and slash from the outside because he's very long and quick, with good reflexes. With JO and Bosh up front, Toronto's defensive look changes significantly because instead of having liabilities at both spots, suddenly they are average or better, and that makes a big difference.
And speaking of defense, O'Neal is an excellent shot-blocker. Even if he proves to be a cataclysmically bad post defender (which is not the case, even of injured JO), then his shot-blocking alone will alter Toronto's defensive presence noticeably. Not since Camby have the Raptors had a shot-blocker this talented, and Camby liked to camp too much to be called a truly excellent shot-blocker. Because O'Neal will threaten anything within 10-15 feet of the rim, slashers will have to keep him in mind and that will be a very different scenario for the Raptors. Too, the perimeter guys can funnel strong wing scorers towards JO, a luxury they were never afforded before, much as JO's presence will help cover up for perimeter defensive mistakes in a way Toronto has not enjoyed in a decade or more.
What are the negative impacts of this trade?
Well for one, if JO isn't healthy, it all falls apart. If he's not there, then Toronto gave up a 17/8 guard and what could be a healthy, productive pick in Roy Hibbert for a guy whose entire purpose will be to serve as a cap flush so the Raptors have cap space for the 2010 season to make a run at re-signing Bosh and a significant free agent. So even in the worst-case scenario, there's at least one positive (especially since he'll be an expiring deal after this season and valuable because his contract is huge). On the other hand, if he's unhealthy, the Raptors in for a really rough season.
That's the primary concern. The other major concern is that, as usual, Toronto remains weak in terms of wing isolation scoring. Calderon isn't TJ Ford; Ford was the Raptors' best isolation scorer aside from Bosh last year. If JO is healthy, this remains a problem because the Raptors need players who can create in broken-play situations and in short-clock scenarios, too. They added Will Solomon presumably to increase their prowess at perimeter shooting and because he can create for himself, but he was a nobody in the NBA his first time around and now, as a 5-year FIBA veteran who didn't stand out quite as well as some notable members of the Toronto roster, the team can't really expect him to perform to the level of Anthony Parker. He can help cover Parker's flagging production (especially on defense if he can pull that off), but what the Raptors really need is someone like Ben Gordon. There is a soft rumor that Toronto is indeed pursuing Gordon, but he is seeking a deal in excess of $10 million a year, which would oblige the Raptors to trade two of either Bargs, Hump, Parker, and Kapono and to accept a long-term contract when the longest contract of those four guys ends after 2010/2011 (Kapono, and Bargs if the Raptors extend him the QO or sign him to a contract extension).
All in all, it's a pretty promising deal; you might call it medium-risk, high-reward. If it flops, the Raptors aren't much worse than they were last year. Maybe a little worse for lack of Ford, but he only played 51 games last year, anyway. There's the injury risk to JO, but the key player traded has played 55 or fewer games twice in the last four years as well, so it's something of a concern. They gave up on a shot for a long-term roster player in Roy Hibbert even though he carries the unknown of being a draft pick, and JO is a quantifiable addition to the team whenever he's on the floor. Toronto gets cap relief for the 2010 offseason, which is a definite plus.
And if it works, Toronto changes the landscape of the Eastern Conference rather abruptly. Can they beat Boston, Cleveland, or Detroit? It's too early to tell, of course, but they certainly have the hypothetical offensive punch to stay with those teams in a 7-game series, so it should be an interesting season.