On Thursday night, in a shockingly close men's basketball game between Spain and Great Britain at the London Olympics, the Raptors' Jose Calderon emerged as the backbone of Spain's eventual one-point victory.
In the dying minutes of the game, Calderon was responsible for key plays at both ends of the court. His active hands provided a key steal at the top of the key, his steady free throw shooting negated Great Britain's attempts to pull ahead in the dying seconds and his evasive dribbling prevented Great Britain from getting a last-second intentional foul after pulling within one with five seconds to go in the game. Calderon wound up leading Spain in the game with 19 points, including six from the foul line, and provided the kind of steady play that the Raptors are going to need if they intend to turn the corner this season and become a legitimate threat to make the NBA Playoffs.
Unfortunately, the Raptors seem eager to trade Calderon and Calderon is likewise eager for a trade out of Toronto. Despite the impasse, though, the two sides would do well to bury the hatchet and move forward together, as it is in the best interests of both to stay wedded for today and for the foreseeable future.
For the Raptors the appeal to keeping Calderon should be obvious. He has developed into a real veteran leader over the last year, earning plaudits from both Dwane Casey and Bryan Colangelo for his efforts in the locker room and out on the court. While newcomer Kyle Lowry all but has the starting spot locked up for next season, having a guy like Calderon in reserve can be a tremendous steadying force for a team that still relies on an excess of youngsters in spite of their growing ambitions for their immediate future.
When a team brings Calderon off of the bench, they get low-mistake point guard play combined with high-percentage shooting and, as Calderon proved on Thursday, he knows how to execute the right way down the stretch of games. Of course, coming off of the bench is an oft-cited reason for Calderon wanting to find a new NBA home after seven years with the Raptors organization, but the issues between Calderon and the Raptors go deeper than Calderon's spot in Toronto's playing rotation.
Throughout his time with the club, Calderon has been made to feel like he is a less-than-ideal choice to run the offence for the organization. Ever since he first signed with the club they've been actively pursuing other options for the position, from T.J. Ford to Jarrett Jack to this summer with Steve Nash and Kyle Lowry. Despite routinely posting some of the best assist numbers in the league and some of the most efficient stats at his position, he's always had to keep one eye on who the club was going to bring in next to supplant him in the starting lineup. It's almost as though the Raptors have gone out of their way at times to publicly distance themselves from Calderon, leaving him to feel like an unwanted lemon that the club is stuck with rather than a valued member of their basketball fraternity.
Now, as we all know, that's a part of the deal when you sign up in the NBA. As much as you are a player, you are an asset, and assets are movable commodities whose values are in constant flux and no one knows this as well as Calderon. While the Raptors have done nothing wrong with regards to Calderon, they have at times been indecorous with how they've handled his position with the club. All any player wants is to feel like their team values them, and even when the Raptors are praising Calderon's contributions it feels like spin. He's been on the trading block for years now, and no matter how well he's played it hasn't changed the fact that the club would move him in a heartbeat if the right trade came along.
However, it's time for the Raptors to show Calderon some respect and invite him back to the organization with open arms this fall. As much as they are no doubt loathe to admit, they need him. They have precious few players who perform with his level of consistency and effectiveness, and with a second-unit replete with rookies and youngsters still trying to find their NBA footing, they need a guard like Calderon to steady their play and lead them while they're out on the court. The club has chosen to build a rotation with seven players that are 26-or-under, and if you are going to go THAT young and still hope to compete you need veterans that can play consistently productive minutes around them. Calderon not only brings consistent productivity but he brings familiarity with much of that playing rotation and has a relationship with his coach that is stronger than most anyone expected heading into last season.
As for Calderon, he'd do well to welcome a return to Toronto, as well. While he has the skills to be a starting guard in the NBA, there aren't many places where he would actually be one. He happens to be playing in one of the most point guard-rich eras in NBA history. Ten teams, or one-third of the league, can reasonably claim to have an All-Star caliber point guard starting for their club, while several others (like Philadelphia, Atlanta, Portland, Washington, Denver, Phoenix and Houston) can claim to have emerging young talents that they'd start over Calderon even if he was on their club. Maybe he could supplant Darren Collison in Dallas or Austin Rivers in New Orleans, but even then the best you can say is 'maybe'. Despite his skills, circumstances have all but dictated that Calderon is a reserve guard given the way today's NBA landscape is shaped. While that landscape is ever-shifting, for now he'd be wise to accept a reserve role with the Raptors, post his highly efficient numbers off of the bench, and hope to play his way into a contract extension with the only NBA club he's ever known.
The fact is that most of Calderon's (and his agent's) posturing right now revolves around the fact that they want to get him to a place where he can maximize his value in anticipation of free agency next summer. However, as Ramon Sessions, D.J. Augustin and Ray Felton discovered this summer, it's a buyers market when it comes to point guards of his caliber. Plus, next summer Calderon will be competing with Augustin, Jack, Devin Harris, Mo Williams, Beno Udrih and restricted free agents Collison, Brandon Jennings, Jrue Holiday and Stephen Curry for contracts. It doesn't really matter where Calderon plays this season, he's simply selling an asset that is in rich supply. He'll be a 32-year-old when the '13-'14 season starts and the days of him landing lucrative long-term money are over. Does he really believe that being a salary-cap-motivated rental is going to put him in a better place as a free agent next summer?
He offers real value to a club like Toronto. Watching him with play with Spain this summer is a testament to that. He's doing the sort of things that Toronto will need someone to be able to do if they are hoping to turn the corner as an organization, and rewarding players like Calderon - rather than spurning them - should be a organizational priority. Likewise for Calderon, proving his worth to Toronto is probably his best bet for a decent contract next summer. Play out the season, secure a modest two or three year deal next summer and maintain the status quo for a while longer. It may not be either side's idea of a perfect ending, but both need each other more than they want to admit.