As the Raptors head into the summer season of roster makeovers, all eyes are fixed on getting this team competitive right away to prevent Chris Bosh from leaving the club in 2010. It's a sound strategy given that players like Bosh are few and far between and every effort to retain his services should be explored.
However, what happens after that? Let's say that the Raptors spend and draft wisely in the next several weeks and they leap back into the Playoffs and even challenge for or make the second round, then what? The team would have no first round pick in next spring's draft (their pick is lottery-protected, but goes to Miami as soon as the Raptors make the post-season), they'd be financially crippled after extending Bosh and Bargnani and unless they make it to the Finals next season, they're going to need improvements to evolve beyond 2010. So, while prudence today makes sense if keeping Chris Bosh is the team's only goal, does it make sense long term as a goal for this club?
This draft is a curious one that the Raptors are about to participate in. There is only one pick that is considered both NBA-ready and possessing All-Star talents (Blake Griffin), and after him there are a collection of question marks. As it stands today the Raptors will be looking to pick at nine from a collection of DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, Gerald Henderson, Jonny Flynn and James Johnson – hardly a crew to get one's blood pumping about the future. There is one player in this draft, though, that holds tremendous promise for the future, at a key NBA position, and he would fit the Raptors like a glove if they had the will to move up to acquire him – and that would be Ricky Rubio.
Let's just lay this out for a second; while Rubio may not be ready to come in and change a club tomorrow, his basketball I.Q. and point guard skill set are jaw-dropping for an 18-year-old player. He sees the floor like few who play the game do and he could do wonders creating offense for a team that has so few players who can do that for themselves. He excels in an up-tempo system, where the ball is in his hands and he's making plays for others, he is an active and willing defender with good size for the position (6'5”) and his star is only going to get brighter. While he still needs to work out some kinks in his jumper, the same challenge was been laid at the rookie feet of Derrick Rose, Chris Paul and Tony Parker – so it can be done.
More than anything, though, Rubio would give the Raptors something special to look forward to in the age of the point guard. While Jose Calderon has been a steady hand at the position for years for the club, and will likely continue to be, he is what he is. He gets people the ball in spots where they can be most effective, but he doesn't really create for them. He plays the game with a savvy determinism, but he doesn't control it, he doesn't manipulate the game to his will. Rubio has that in him, he possesses that special ability of a player who can bend the game around him.
He may not be able to come in and dominate right out of the gate, but he won't fall flat on his face, either. Let's face it, this guy has been playing and playing well with grown men for years in Spain. He's held his own at a level that several NCAA and ex-NBAers cannot. Just look to the difference between what he was able to do at 18 and what high school ‘prodigy' Brandon Jennings was able to do (heck, just getting on the court puts him ahead of Jennings). Rubio is a special talent, and isn't that what NBA teams should be chasing after?
Of course, getting Rubio wouldn't come cheap, and it would almost assuredly cost the Raptors Calderon – a price many will see as too steep for an unproven rookie. However, is it better to hang on to a player you know to be very good just to stay comfortable or should you seek out a player that has a (real) chance to be great in an attempt to improve?
It's sort of the eternal question in team building: stick with what you know or risk it all for a chance at something better?
If the Raptors were to have any shot at grabbing Rubio, they'd probably have to be dealing with Memphis or Oklahoma City. The Memphis angle would be the trickier of the two, and might require a third team. Simply put, Memphis already has a nice, cheap point guard in Mike Conley and taking on Calderon's $8-million/year salary might not appeal to them. Route Calderon to Portland, though, and toss Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez back to Memphis, with the 2nd pick and Steve Blake coming to Toronto and you start having the early signs of a reasonable deal.
Still, the easier marriage would be with OKC, if Rubio drops past Memphis (or past someone who acquires Memphis' pick). Trade Calderon for their third pick and Earl Watson's expiring deal and both team's would seem to win out; Toronto gets to keep their number nine pick while snatching Rubio and a veteran backup, while OKC gets a legit and savvy NBA point guard to lead their young team while shedding the discontentment of Watson.
Sacrificing a fan favorite like Calderon, of course, would be tough, but Rubio possesses many of the same fan friendly attributes with a more visually appealing game. He's more comfortable running the Raptors' style of offense and he plays better defense than Calderon, and the OKC scenario allows the Raps to still kick the tires on one of the players they're already considering at nine. Plus, the trade gives the team a $6.6-million payroll reduction next summer to play with on the open market.
Of course, this trade isn't going to happen. Colangelo was burned big time last summer swinging for the fences on the Jermaine O'Neal deal (although if the Raptors retain Marion, a short-term loss becomes a long-term gain) and the risk of Rubio needing a year of seasoning could impinge on the team's successes this year, threatening the Chris Bosh situation. Still, once upon a time this was just the kind of go-for-the-gusto move that Colangelo was known for – as was his reputation for swapping point guards (Kevin Johnson, Jason Kidd, Stephon Marbury, Steve Nash, T.J. Ford). Today brings a more prudent Colangelo, though, and perhaps that will serve the Raptors well in their quest to retain Chris Bosh, but that doesn't really help focus how the team improves once (if) that happens.