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Toronto the leader among wheelers and dealers
by Marc Narducci / June 27, 2008

Jermaine O'Neal and Anthony Parker - Icon Sports MediaAfter an NBA Draft that didn't lack surprises, it’s impossible to assign final grades, simply because so many more deals are expected to be made. Still, in this time of instant gratification, here are some initial impressions of an unpredictable last few days.

Potential biggest winner

While this trade can’t officially be announced until July 9, the Toronto Raptors took a big chance by apparently trading one of-injured player point guard T.J. Ford for equally injured and older Jermaine O'Neal as part of a mult-player deal with the Indiana Pacers. Ford was expendable because Toronto vows to keep restricted free agent Jose Calderon, who will no longer have to share the point guard minutes.

O’Neal will be an old 30-years-old when the season starts and he has missed 122 games over the past four years. O’Neal’s skills haven’t eroded and if healthy – a big if – then he would give the Raptors toughness and something they desperately need, an inside scoring threat and strong interior defender.

And it could also enable Andrea Bargnani to come off the bench, a role he is more suited for. Toronto was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. If the Raptors want to be competitive with the likes of Boston and Detroit, they need great players. O’Neal is still a great player, when he can stay on the court. O’Neal’s health is the reason why this is a $44 million gamble, the amount left over the next two years on his contract. If he can stay on the court most of the time, it will be worth every penny.

Showing improvement

Nobody seems to have more fun on draft night than Trail Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard. In the past two years, he has made 10 draft day trades. In essence, Pritchard gave up a boatload of picks and two reserves to acquire Arizona point guard Jerryd Bayless, Indiana Pacers power forward Ike Diogu and the draft rights to Nicolas Batum, the 19-year-old swingman from France. Batum is likely stay overseas.

Pritchard didn’t give up any integral parts to get these players. He parted with Jarrett Jack, who was inconsistent and Josh McRoberts, who appeared in just eight games. Plus Pritchard received four future second-round picks, ensuring many more future draft day deals. The key is whether Bayless is as good as the Trail Blazers believe he can be. Many draft projections had him going as high as No. 4, but he slipped to 11, when the Pacers drafted him and then sent him to Portland for the rights to Brandon Rush of Kansas.

One thing that Portland didn’t get with all these deals was much older. Portland was the youngest team in the NBA last year and should be this season. Despite the youth, with the expected return of center Greg Oden, Portland is building toward an exciting future.

Milwaukee

The Milwaukee Bucks are a better team today with the acquisition of Richard Jefferson from the New Jersey Nets for Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons. While Yi may one day become a good player, Jefferson has approached borderline all-star status. Prior to last season there were injury concerns about Jefferson, but he played in all 82 games and had his best season, averaging a career-high 22.6 points. The 28-year-old Jefferson also is noted for his defense, something that new coach Scott Skiles will truly appreciate. Does Jefferson make the Bucks a playoff team? It’s possible although Milwaukee may not yet be done wheeling and dealing.

Most interesting trade

Memphis sent Minnesota the draft rights to UCLA’s Kevin Love along with swingman Mike Miller, forward Brian Cardinal and center Jason Collins for the draft rights to O.J. Mayo, Marko Jaric, Antoine Walker and Greg Buckner.

While Memphis has been rounding criticized since the Pau Gasol trade to the Lakers, this one works if Mayo eventually reaches all-star status, which many consider a reasonable scenario. After the 2008-09 season, there is a team option on Walker’s contract and Memphis surely won’t pick it up, that is if they don’t buy him out first this year. Jaric has three years and more than $21 million left on his deal

Memphis was able to rid itself of Cardinal’s final two years and $13 million contract. From a Minnesota perspective, Love will give them intelligence and toughness inside although he insists it won’t be at center. Miller, with two years and nearly $19 million left on his contract is among the NBA’s premier shooters. So the Wolves likely got two starters in this deal. The key remains Mayo, who now gets the chance to show all his pre-NBA hype was justified.

Looking to the future

New Jersey had an active and interesting draft day, first with the trade of Jefferson to Milwaukee for Yi and Simmons. While the Nets insist that they feel Yi can be a star, this was made with an eye toward the 2010-2011 season. Jefferson has three years and $42 million left on his contract. Simmons has just two years and slightly more than $20 million remaining on his deal.

His contract will expire after the 2009-2010 season, not so coincidentally when LeBron James becomes a free agent. James happens to be a good friend of Nets minority owner Jay-Z. Still, it’s not likely James or anybody else would come to New Jersey unless the young players develop.

The Nets went big in the draft, selecting Stanford 7-footer Brook Lopez and 6-10 Ryan Anderson of Cal. Many feel the Nets received tremendous value by selecting Memphis swingman Chris Roberts-Douglas with the 40th pick in the second round. New Jersey will miss Jefferson’s defense and improving offensive skills, but not his salary. The Nets are clearly building for the future.

Marginally better?

Larry Bird wasn’t kidding when he promised that changes would be made by the Indiana Pacers. Indiana needed a point guard. The Pacers finally came to the conclusion that Jamaal Tinsley is just not dependable on or off the court. So T.J. Ford will get the keys to the Pacers offense, but he is always perceived as being one hard fall away from ending his career. Ford missed the enter 2004-05 season due to neck surgery and missed 31 games last season after suffering a stinger. When healthy, he is one of the quickest players in the NBA with the ball. Jarrett Jack, who was acquired from Portland along with Josh McRoberts, should be a serviceable backup.

In addition, Indiana received Rasho Nesterovic and 6-10 Maceo Baston, neither who will cause Eastern Conference opponents to worry. Down the road, the drafting of Roy Hibbert, in the pick acquired from Toronto, could benefit the Pacers. Coach Jim O'Brien likes a center who can defend and that is Hibbert’s forte. First-round pick Brandon Rush, acquired when swapping picks with Portland, is the type of perimeter player O’Brien likes. This appears to make the Pacers marginally better since they weren’t getting much from O’Neal the last few years. The combination of Ford and Jack will be an upgrade at point guard, but interior defense could be a problem for the Pacers.

Playoff bound

It’s not always that the teams with the first two picks in the draft are considered playoff contenders, but Chicago and Miami took significant steps towards returning to the postseason with the selection of Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley respectively. Now the big question is whether the Bulls trade point guard Kirk Hinrich or move him to the shooting guard.

Much depends on what happens with Ben Gordon, whether the Bulls keep their restricted free agent, or execute a sign and trade. Dealing Hinrich for some much needed frontcourt help, could be the way to go for the Bulls, who even if they stand pat, might challenge for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

As for Miami, suddenly, the Heat have a glut of forwards – Shawn Marion, Beasley and Udonis Haslem. If Miami goes with a smaller, quicker lineup, all three could share the court at the same time. Still, the Heat needs a center, something many other teams can claim as well. What Miami needs most is Dwyane Wade to return to health after missing 31 games in each of the past two years.

One underrated move had Miami trading two future second round picks to Minnesota for Kansas point guard Mario Chalmers, a defensive standout.

Both the Heat and Bulls likely aren’t finished making moves, but it’s not an impossible thought to consider either potential playoff candidates in the Eastern Conference.

Marc Narducci is a frequent contributor to HoopsHype.com

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