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Chisholm: For Colangelo and Raps, this is just the beginning

Tim Chisholm
7/12/2010 6:42:38 PM
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For all of those that demand that Bryan Colangelo be fired, or have demanded it or will demand it later, just remember how impressive he is at pushing trades through that no one thinks he has a shot at completing.

It's an underrated skill for a GM, and it's as important as pure talent evaluation or drafting acumen, because none of that stuff means anything if you do not have the chops to buy and sell on your own terms when you've targeted certain players to grab or shed.

Bryan Colangelo has that skill, and it is vastly underrated when people evaluate him. Even when he signs highly controversial deals, like last summer's contract with Hedo Turkoglu, he has the ability to undo the damage in a way that few seem to appreciate.

Today, though, it would be hard for anyone to underestimate this particular ability of Toronto's beleaguered GM, as in one fell swoop he shed the last major vestiges of the Chris Bosh and went about remaking the team in the image many suspect he's always wanted.

Word began leaking out of the Arizona Republic (courtesy of Paul Coro) late last night that the Raptors had managed to swap Hedo and the $44-million over four years left on his contract for Leandro Barbosa and the $14.7-million left over two years on his. Alone, that deal was something quite stupendous; it jettisoned Colangelo's most lamented signing as the Raptors' GM, it did so without taking back a bad contract (Barbosa makes nearly $3-million less per-year than Hedo), it shaved two years of guaranteed money from the Raptors' bottom-line and the team actually filled a long-standing need in the process. In terms of the kind of contracts some were fearing the Raptors would have to absorb to unload Turkoglu, this was about as positive a move the team could have realistically hoped for under the circumstances.

However, as the night wore on word was that the Raptors were also going to use their Traded Player Exception from the Bosh sign-and-trade from last week to absorb the salary of former Suns forward, Boris Diaw.

The $18-million spread over two years that was owed to Diaw caused some raised eyebrows, since it hardly seemed like the kind of move that would have justified Colangelo's hardline stance about receiving the large TPE from Miami, but Diaw did make some sense as a replacement of sorts for the outgoing Turkoglu.

When he's engaged (which, admittedly, is not all the time), he's one of the most versatile players in the NBA, able to play all three frontcourt positions as well point forward and his defense is actually quite commendable for a former Sun. In Toronto, he'd also be reunited with Marc Iavaroni, the former Phoenix assistant who specialized in working with the team's bigs when Diaw had his breakout season in '05-'06. While no one was going to get excited about using the TPE that caused imaginations to run wild to nab Diaw, it was a low-risk move since he only had two years left on his deal, and would be at worst a $9-million expiring contract next summer that provided the team with some versatility in place of Hedo.

That thinking, of course, became irrelevant by about noon today as the story bloomed even bigger, with Toronto using Jose Calderon and Reggie Evans in place of their TPE to acquire not just Diaw but pogo-stick centre Tyson Chandler, as well.

If the TPE deal left some non-pulsed, swapping team's second most onerous contract (Calderon, at $30-million over three years) for one two-year pact and one large expiring pact (Chandler makes $12.7-million this season and expires at season's end) has to be met with some measure of enthusiasm. That should be especially true since Chandler marks the first time the Raptors have had a true centre worth a damn since Marcus Camby. Now Andrea Bargnani slides down to his natural power forward position, just like Colangelo wanted him to do, and he's protected by a career 8.8 rebound-per-game guy who, at 7-foot-1, has the length to actually protect the paint from penetration and post-ups. Chandler, along with Bargnani, Amir Johnson Diaw, Ed Davis and Linas Kleiza (who has been signed to an offer sheet that is not expected to be matched by Denver) now gives the Raptors one of the biggest front lines in the NBA. Plus, Chandler, Johnson, Diaw and Davis all give the Raptors a defensive edge that they've sorely lacked for several years under the basket.

In fact, that is part of the most ironic elements to this tale. In one 24-hour period, the Raptors have acquired two pieces that were in desperate need during the entirety of the seven year Chris Bosh era in Toronto, and they've done it less than a week after Bosh committed himself officially to another team. Barbosa gives the Raptors an offensive spark plug off of the bench who will apply pressure to defenses by creating shots for himself and others, while Chandler, as was stated above, represents the legit centre the team has been desperate for since Antonio Davis pleaded to move back to power forward in 2001. While Diaw doesn't address a specific need, per se, he is the kind of Swiss Army Knife player that can excel in just about any system because of the staggering versatility to his game.

Of course, the thing that these three, along with Kleiza, have in common is the element that actually provides the true context for the particulars of these moves. Sure, the Raptors were eager to unload Turkoglu and Calderon, vestiges of an era that never really panned out, but there were a few different directions that the team could have gone with those assets. The fact that they've acquired who they've acquired demonstrates more firmly than any summer before that this year's iteration of the Raptors intends to base it's attack on the fast break.

Yeah, yeah, I know, you've heard that before. In fact, you've been hearing it since Colangelo took over the club in 2006, but never before has he been so particular in bringing in players that not only excel in an uptempo system but have also played in one before. It sounds like a semantic argument, because, after all, any player CAN play in such a system, regardless of whether they have or not, but the truth is that isn't entirely true.

To run an uptempo system, it takes a level of commitment that few players expect when they plead for it in the press. Running on every possession is exhausting, it takes a quickness of reaction that few players can maintain and it can become frustrating when one or more of your teammates aren't filling the lanes with you when you commit to doing it and they don't. There is a reason so many teams pledge to run when they enter training camp and why so few wind up sniffing at the year-in and year-out Pace ratings of teams like Phoenix, Golden State or Denver. It's easy to run when your coach is substituting liberally during pre-season, but it's another thing to run on your fourth game in five nights in the middle of February. To a fan watching at home, you can scream at your television that the guys are lazy, but it's hard to be a fastbreak team and any angle you can exploit as a coach or GM to get your team to buy in helps.

With Barbosa and Diaw, they've played in the most notorious fastbreak system of the last ten years; the Mike D'Antoni ‘Seven Seconds or Less' offense that reinvigorated fastbreak basketball for the modern era. They both had the best years of their careers running that system, and both are only 28, meaning they still have plenty of juice left in the tank to return to that level of play. Their ability to commit to getting up and down the court will help inspire the Raptors best open-court players, DeMar DeRozan, Sonny Weems and Amir Johnson, to try and keep pace with them. They'll help instill the mental commitment to running, but of course it's up to the young guys to do it themselves night after night.

It'll help tremendously having a guy like Chandler around the basket because when he's healthy (which is about 60%-70% of the time) he inhales rebounds, blocks shots and otherwise does all of the things that initiates the running game from a defensive perspective. He has a long 7-foot-1 body with an even longer 7-foot-3 wingspan, which helped him average one-third more rebounds per-minute than Andrea Bargnani last season. Why is that impressive? Because Bargnani had a career-high in that category last season while Chandler recorded his lowest rate since his rookie year. The disparity in their abilities in this area are staggering. Had Bargnani played centre again next season it would have been much harder for the Raptors to affect the game defensively enough to be a serious threat as a running team. If Chandler can stay relatively healthy and motivated (the latter shouldn't be a problem in a contract year), his contributions on the glass could transform the Raptors into the running outfit they've promised they'd be for years. It's a lot easier run, as they say, when you can get stops and rebounds, two glaring weakness for the Raptors in recent years.

So to say this trade, which has actually become a single three-team transaction, is a success for Toronto may be quite an understatement. They shed $33-million total from their committed salaries, they unloaded two players that had fallen out of favor in Toronto, they acquired three players that are of actual use to the club in return, and they did it all without touching the lucrative TPE that the team snagged when they lost Bosh to Miami. This club also has two more expiring contracts it can still include in trades (Marcus Banks at $4.8-million and Marco Belinelli at $2.4-million) down the road, so the odds that the transaction train has left the station are very slim only two weeks into free agency.

Things aren't all wine and roses, though, as a result of this move. Acquiring Diaw and Chandler, as well as Kleiza, limits the minutes available to guys like Ed Davis, Amir Johnson and Sonny Weems. While Chandler is an injury waiting to happen, meaning that depth will no doubt be called into action this season, there is no doubt these moves make minute allocation for Jay Triano a much more difficult job when everyone is healthy. These moves also leave the team thin in terms of playmakers. Turkoglu and Calderon, for all of their issues, were the team's two best in that area, and while Barbosa can certainly log minutes as a backup point guard, his game is purely scoring oriented. If this club has more moves in the pipeline, one has to figure that will be the next area to be addressed.

However, those issues can only be seen as minor collateral damage at this point. Colangelo has begun throughly erasing the memories of the Chris Bosh era in Toronto as he looks to the future with guys like Bargnani and DeRozan taking the reigns of the club. Not every team has a management group in place that has that kind of ability to extricate themselves from burdensome deals while remaking their image on the fly (see: Cleveland, Detroit, New Orleans), and a day like today shows plainly how useful that exact talent is. The Raptors hurled themselves headfirst into their unknown future today, and as the cliché goes: this is only the beginning.

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