No single issue holds the keys the Raptors' future as does the case involving the future of Chris Bosh. I have written the bulk of my post-season material under the assumption that Bosh does, in fact, return for at least one more year. If he doesn't return then all examinations about this team are moot, anyway. Today's entry, though, examines this particular situation in more detail.
Basically, one of three things is going to happen in the next few weeks. The first is that Bosh lays out for management that he is done with the Toronto Raptors, won't sign an extension now or ever, and wants to be traded. The second is that Bosh won't sign an extension, but wants to stay with the club to see if they can turn it around next year, with an eye towards re-upping should things go well. The last possibility is that Bosh defies his earlier statements, pulls a Paul Pierce and signs an extension with the team this summer that makes all the speculation a non-issue.
Given Bosh's personality, the chances of the first option are slim. Bosh knows that it would poison not only his reputation to go that route but it would make him infinitely harder to trade as teams look to fleece Toronto with their offers. The latter option, signing an extension, is also unlikely. As much as Bryan Colangelo would love to take Bosh's name off of the market, it makes no financial or logistical sense for Bosh to tie his hands to any organization at this point, regardless of his chances at winning with that club. He, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade signed the contracts that they did, with year-three opt-out clauses, because it would allow them to reap an increased financial windfall as the result of turning 25-years-old, playing for seven years and as a result of not being beholden to a new (more stringent) Collective Bargaining Agreement. There is no incentive for Bosh to back out of the plan now, so don't expect him to as a gesture of goodwill, because it would be foolhardy for him to do so.
So, that just leaves the second option, the most dreaded for GM Bryan Colangelo. If Bosh were to state definitively, one way or another, what he wanted to do going forward, the burden of making this very hard choice would be off of Colangelo's shoulders. However, if Bosh does the smart thing and merely says his immediate intention is to stay with the team and ride it out for another year, then all of the pressure would fall to Toronto's embattled GM. He would have to decide whether or not he felt confident that Bosh would stick around if winning returned to Toronto next season (even if it were merely 42 or 43 wins), or if he should bite the bullet and move him while his value remains high around the league. After all, should he keep Bosh, and then have the team struggle like they did this winter, Bosh's market value will be affected at the trade deadline, when Colangelo would be forced to make a deal or else lose his franchise guy for nothing in the summer. It's an unenviable situation, but it is one that Colangelo made for himself with the risky moves he orchestrated over the last two years. It doesn't make those moves wrong, per se, because he was hired to make risky moves and those moves have a higher failure rate, but it does put him in the quandary that he is in today.
Before we explore the avenues that Colangelo could take in more detail, let's take a look at this situation from Bosh's perspective, or at least how it all stands to affect him, long term. See, Bosh has never wavered from his stance that he wants to be main guy for any team he joins. The question is, how many teams are going to afford him that option? In Toronto, Bosh became the default franchise player when Vince Carter was traded to New Jersey and he more or less lived up to the expectations placed on him. When a player comes up through a system as a rookie, the way he is viewed is different than if he were acquired in a trade or in free agency. When you are brought up with one franchise, you have a special relationship with the organization and the fans; they've seen you grow and they feel a certain parental ownership over you. They forgive certain things about you and your game because of shared experience. It's like John Stockton in Utah or Reggie Miller in Indiana. Neither one of those guys ever scaled the highest mountain and neither one was the perfect player, but their cities and organizations adored them, nonetheless, bestowing upon them an adoration that may even be considered out of proportion when set against their contemporaries. They became Hall-of-Famers partly because they maintained the glow of a guy who never had the expectations placed on him of being a savior or the ‘missing piece' to new franchise.
That fate, though, begins to define an elite talent when he vacates his first team. There is a bizarre stigma that gets applied to a player in those situations, a sort of loss of innocence that only winning on the biggest stage can cure (and very, very few players manage that feat). It's as if one chapter of a player's career can be looked on as a whole and be seen as a failure that he'll have to atone for in his new destination. Consider Shaquille O'Neal right after he left Orlando for Los Angeles; he was as big as they got in Orlando, a ‘can do no wrong' player destined for greatness. He was hailed as the next great big man in a long Lakers legacy upon arriving in LA, but when he failed to produce titles right off the bat people started turning on him, saying he didn't have what it took to win. Or, perhaps more applicable to Chris Bosh, is a guy like Chris Webber, a marvelous talent that people sort of left out of the conversations as one of the best players in the league once he started bouncing around from team to team. Even when he hooked in at Sacramento and the team was winning, he wasn't heralded like the less-successful (but still with his original team) Kevin Garnett. This is an unquantifiable interpretation of stars who leave their first teams, don't get me wrong, but that suspicion starts to follow a player once a team goes about courting them and heralding them as their messiah. If Bosh is forced (by himself or Colangelo) to go that route, his career will be impacted for the worse.
After all, consider how difficult it has been for Colangelo to piece together a cohesive lineup around Bosh. No one knows the ins and outs of Bosh's game as well as the Raptors organization, yet even they are at times flummoxed as to what the best method of utilizing him is. Sam Mitchell chose to incessantly involve him in isolations and pick-and-rolls, devaluing the games of everyone that surrounded Bosh. As the New Jersey and Orlando Playoff matchups proved, all a team had to do was swarm Bosh and dare the rest of the team to beat them (which they couldn't do). Jay Triano initially attempted to democratize the offense, allowing guys like Bargnani, Calderon, Kapono, O'Neal and eventually Marion to have a greater steak in the team's scoring output. However, Bosh struggled to find his way in that system, unsure of where his shots would come from, and when, so his game became forced and less effective. It brought to light an uncomfortable limitation in Bosh's game, the first hints that he had reached his ceiling and some of Mitchell's old sets were quickly thrown back into the mix to keep Bosh happy and productive. Bosh was talented enough to use that to get his game back on track and finish the season strong, but I think for all involved it demonstrated a heretofore unseen (or ignored) aspect to the Chris Bosh legacy – that he was not only fallible, but that he was going to need a lot of help if he was going to win meaningful games in the NBA.
That is a point not to be understated. If this team keeps Bosh, they actually NEED Bargnani scoring nearly 20 ppg and Marion and Calderon averaging 15 and 10. Bosh needs help at that level if he hopes to beat a lot of the teams in the NBA, because as talented as he is, he isn't at the level of his contemporaries that can simply win games by themselves. He isn't Dwyane Wade, who can lead a weak Miami team from the basement of the NBA to the upper-reaches of his Conference. He's Chris Bosh, who can align with other talented players to make for an intriguing whole. For a team like the Raptors, that isn't a huge problem because they are more or less at the point where they understand that fact and are getting better at finding the right pieces to surround him with to keep him playing like an All-Star. However, if he gets brought into New York or Chicago and is expected to lead them to glory, the fans will turn on him quick for not being the kind of ‘do-it-all' star that takes them there. There will be no pre-existing relationship to soften the circumstance, just disgust and ire that he was not what he was sold as by the organization and the media.
That is why it makes the logical sense for Bosh to remain in Toronto, as much as that thought might make him (and some Raptor fans) lose a lot of sleep this summer. This team not only has an infrastructure that is farther ahead than any team (willing to call him their main guy) at understanding what kind of talent needs to surround him, but they also have a fan base that, while honest about his not being at the same level as Wade, James, Paul or Howard, will get behind him if he shows them the smallest signs of commitment. Whether Bosh wants to cop to it or not, he's not like his Olympic teammates mentioned above, he's like Carmelo and Boozer, who can anchor an offense but can't lead a one-man band.
However, if Colangelo feels that Bosh's intentions do not have him playing in Toronto past 2010, no matter what he does to appease him, then there will be options on the trade market for him to explore. Here are the five best realistic targets, ranked from top to bottom (note that none of these trades are known offers, this is merely an anecdotal exploration of what the Raptors could hope to attain for Bosh in a trade):
1. LaMarcus Aldridge
This might not even be an option if he and the Blazers show up in the post-season, but right now the NBA world is so enamored of Brandon Roy no one understands how good Aldridge is. Is he better than Bosh? It depends by what measure you're asking; defensively and in the post, yes, he is. In terms of creating his own offense and rebounding the ball, no, he is not. However, Aldridge would slide so effortlessly into Toronto's existing schemes that he has to be the number one target for the Raptors in a Bosh trade. Whether or not Portland would go for it is an entirely different question, since the margin between the two is thin enough that Portland may be better capitalizing on the chemistry their team has already attained than upsetting to integrate a slightly better player.
2. Anthony Randolph
Yeah, for real. Coming into the draft last year people were talking about Randolph as a Bosh clone. Now, that isn't entirely accurate – he's more of a bigger, more athletic Al Harrington, without all the baggage – but he has shown enough flashes in the last two weeks to make one stop and consider Randolph as a starter alongside Andrea Bargnani being a healthy combo. Of course, the benefit of doing a deal with Golden State is that, to make the money work, the Raptors would also be able to pry either Andris Biedrins or Monta Ellis away, as well. It says here that Biedrins would only impede Randolph's development by making him come off of the bench whereas Ellis would allow the team to grab a sorely-needed backcourt scoring punch, but such a move would also mean the Raptors take a step or two back in terms of time it will take to regain any reasonable footing in the Eastern Conference. Either way, though, two quality starters for one isn't a horrible trade for the Raptors, though it does not make them better right away by any stretch of the imagination.
3. Blake Griffin
This would take some creative financing, depending on who lands the number one pick, but Griffin is a tantalizing prospect capable of playing in the NBA right away. His defense and size are question marks for a Raptor team that already struggles at stopping the ball and rebounding, but his tenacity and athleticism should more than make up those short comings in the near term and a commitment to development could make up for them in the long term.
4. Paul Millsap
Bosh would thrive in a structured system like the one run in Utah because so many of his decisions on both ends of the court would be made for him, but it would be hard to make the money work to make this deal happen. It also remains to be seen if Millsap could actually replicate the kind of season he had as a part-time starter for the Jazz in a less-structured system without Deron Williams running the show. He plays with a level of intensity no Raptor has played with since Antonio Davis, and his rebounding could certainly help atone for Bargnani's sometimes lack thereof, but as a return for Bosh he may be too much of a loss on the dollar to warrant such a move.
5. No one
How's this for a notion: having $15.8-million coming off of your cap in 2010? It wouldn't put the Raptors into play for James or Wade, but the club would only have about $30-million committed to deals (more if they resign Marion) and could make a play for one or two second-tier free agents to place around Bargnani and Calderon. It's not an ideal situation, but it's better than going out and forcing a trade just to appease Chris Bosh and a disenchanted fan base. Sometimes being in control of your future as a team is as worthwhile saving face publicly with regards to dealing with a player. Colangelo would have to win big on the open market to keep himself from being crucified for such a move, but that's why he gets paid the big bucks.
All told, the Raptors and Chris Bosh should look to try and keep themselves united. Both are better with each other than without, regardless of what this catastrophe of a season would indicate. He's a guy that needs a particular support staff and the Raptors are closer to figuring out what that staff needs to look like than any other club. A more balanced roster led by Bosh, Bargnani and Calderon should be able to take on the bevy of pretenders sitting between the fifth and the fifteenth spots in the Conference. Even if they themselves are merely one of the pretenders themselves, they can pretend better with Bosh on their side. It says here that if Bosh leaves Toronto he'll either be a numbers guy on a lottery team or a second banana on a winning team, and neither of those options would appeal to him at this stage of his career. Now Colangelo just has to go about fixing the team around Bosh to get this train back on its rails.