Commentary

Who wins the Pacers-Raptors trade? Everybody

Originally Published: June 25, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN Insider

Photo by Rocky Widner/Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Jermaine O'Neal and T.J. Ford are both on their way out.

It's rare that I like a trade from both sides, but once in a while one comes along that's mutually beneficial.

Wednesday's deal between Indiana and Toronto is just such a deal.

The swap would send Jermaine O'Neal to the Raptors for T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, Toronto's first-round pick at No. 17, and probably one other player (likely Maceo Baston). The trade can't be completed until July 9, however, because Ford is a base-year compensation player until the first day that next season's cap rules kick in (July 1), and so the trade won't work under the cap until then. From then until July 9, the league has a moratorium on trades and signings. Given all that, the trade won't be official for a fortnight.

Instead, this will be the trade that everybody knows about but nobody acknowledges publicly. There will be no announcements or news conferences and it might mess with some summer-league plans. But the teams are exchanging medical information, and right now everything appears to be a go.

By the way, this delay also means there are still two weeks for other teams to get in on this trade and make it more than a two-way deal. (With luck, maybe it morphs into one of those indecipherable five-way deals that somehow involve the rights to an international player who was drafted five years ago but never got a sniff of the league. I have visions of Roberto Dueñas and Sergei Lishouk waiting anxiously by the phone to find out their new "team.")

Whatever happens, the draft pick seems likely to stay in the Pacers' hands, as the draft is within 24 hours. Tomorrow, the Raptors will choose whomever Larry Bird tells them to at No. 17 and then convey that player to Toronto in two weeks. But the other pieces (especially Ford and Nesterovic) could still be in play, as could the likes of Jamaal Tinsley.

Even if the trade doesn't expand any further, this one looks like a true win-win -- both teams are repackaging their assets to get into a far better position than they were before, and for either side, the downside seems pretty minimal.

Let's take a look, first, from the Pacers' side:

  • They got something for Jermaine O'Neal: This wasn't easy, not with O'Neal being owed $44 million over the next two seasons and his run of poor health the past few years. While his name has come up a lot in trade conversations over the past year, talks never got far because the other side always flinched at his salary.

  • They got a point guard: Ford was excellent last year when he played, ranking sixth among all point guards with a 20.4 player efficiency rating (PER). And while Ford's spinal stenosis condition is obviously a concern, I'm told the team doctors carefully went over his medical information and concluded there isn't anything immediately career-threatening.

  • They can trade Tinsley: Obviously, this involves finding somebody who wants to take him, but he was their only true starting point guard. Now they have his replacement.

  • The draft is their oyster: Prior to this trade, the Pacers seemed locked into taking D.J. Augustin at No. 11 to resolve the point guard issue. They still might -- forming an all-Longhorn point guard rotation -- but they're also freed to pursue other talents that may unexpectedly fall their way (like Brook Lopez). And with the No. 17 pick, they can grab a second young big man -- heavens knows this draft has enough of them -- to quickly rebuild the frontcourt rotation.

  • Cap space! Ah, yes, now we get to the big kahuna. By taking on the expiring contracts of Nesterovic and Baston and taking back $2.5 million less than O'Neal makes to begin with, the Pacers put themselves in position to be about $16 million under the cap next summer (depending on where the cap number comes in, which we won't know until next July). They can pursue a big free agent (or take one in a trade) to team up with Ford, Danny Granger and the draft picks, and they'll have the next generation of Pacers up and running.

    So, big picture, the Pacers finally start over. For the past couple seasons they've been hemming and hawing about whether to go in a new direction; now Bird has set a definitive course. As a result, look for other dominoes to fall in Indy -- starting with Tinsley and possibly including Troy Murphy and Jeff Foster.

    Now, given all the positives for the Pacers, you might think the Raptors are getting fleeced here, but you'd be wrong. Toronto GM Bryan Colangelo has put his team in position to achieve three big objectives as well:

  • A frontcourt presence: No longer will the Raptors have the league's wimpiest frontcourt. Adding O'Neal gives Toronto a legitimate post-up threat as well as one of the best defensive players in the league.

    It also eases the wear and tear on Chris Bosh, who has suffered from having to play in the middle for much the past two seasons. Now Bosh is free to play where he belongs, at his natural power forward spot. And Andrea Bargnani is free to go back where he belongs: the bench.

    Meanwhile, the threat of O'Neal on the block may open more room for Toronto's 3-point shooters, especially Jason Kapono.

  • A point guard answer: The platoon between Ford and Jose Calderon imploded at the end of last season because Ford couldn't handle coming off the bench and Calderon was too good to yank from the starting lineup. It was also a waste of resources -- the Raptors had the fifth- and sixth-best point guards in the league by PER but couldn't play them together.

    Converting one of those assets into a frontcourt player made all kinds of sense. And since Ford had a big contract (he has three years and $25 million left; Calderon is a restricted free agent who will probably get a bit over the midlevel in this market) and was the player with the dodgier health record, it made sense for him to be the one exiled.

  • More flexibility: I think O'Neal will work out well in Toronto. Like I said, he answers a need and he's still a good player when healthy. And he's reportedly spending his summer in Las Vegas, working out with noted trainer Joe Abunassar.

    But suppose I'm wrong and O'Neal doesn't work out. In fact, let's say O'Neal is an absolute disaster in 2008-09.

    Is the trade a disaster then for the Raptors? No, it is not. Because the Raptors, at that point, would be sitting on a $23 million expiring contract for 2009-10. And depending on what Colangelo does with his other contracts between now and then, he can go down one of two paths: (1) eat the cap savings and get in position for the summer of 2010, when some big names will likely be on the market or (2) trade his mammoth expiring contract for somebody else's big contract, as the Lakers did in the Pau Gasol trade this winter. Either way he comes out of it OK.

    So the upshot is, this deal absolutely works for both teams. I expect the Raptors to be significantly better next season as a result of this deal, as it takes a player who was utterly redundant and converts him into a solution for the team's single biggest weakness.

    And I expect the Pacers' rebuilding to be much smoother and faster now that they've jettisoned O'Neal and received '09 cap space and two good young pieces in return.

    The players come out of it in better shape, too. O'Neal and Ford get new leases on life after being sprung from difficult situations. Bosh finally gets a frontcourt partner to do the dirty work for him. Calderon gets starter's minutes and some added salary leverage. Even throw-ins Nesterovic and Baston are likely to get more burn in Indy than they would have in Toronto. Only Bargnani loses.

    So it's a win-win all-around. Kudos to both Bird and Colangelo for recognizing the mutual benefit.

    John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.