It makes me laugh every once in a while when someone will try to suggest that Toronto isn't a real basketball market or the Raptors are somehow a fragile franchise. I'm not aware of people talking like that in Philadelphia, New Jersey or Boston - back before they were winning and were lagging the NBA in attendance. There are some lifeless arenas in the NBA. The Verizon Center last night was one of them. There were 13,000 there, in theory. And apart from one fan seated to my left who thought he was coaching the Wizards - the visiting press seats are in the lower bowl of the arena - not too many of them were actually that into the game, and why would they be? For the most part most of the Wizards weren't either. Apart from the indefatigable Antawn Jamison and Mike James - who as any Raptor fan would know - will play the last second of a 40-point blowout as hard as the first in his tireless pursuit of his numbers, it was more or less just another night in a long season for Washington. Even at the Raptors lowest ebbs I don't recall the Air Canada Centre being that dead. And when the Raptors are actually within in sniffing range of being decent, ACC fans bring it pretty well, I'd say.
As for Things, to me there's only two that that matter, so here we go:
1. Andrea Bargnani should remain the starting centre on this team. I'm under no illusion that the numbers he's putting up over the last five games since O'Neal has been out - 21.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.8 blocks on 57 per cent shooting - are entirely sustainable. He will not convert 62 per-cent of his three-pointers for the rest of the season, I think it's safe to say. But he's been given an opportunity and he's performed and he deserves the chance to keep performing. His development into a front-line NBA player is paramount if the Raptors are going to be able make any legitimate progress towards becoming an elite team, and even then it's no lock. But what is a lock is that bringing O'Neal back as a starter does nothing to enhance Bargnani's development and likely nothing to further the team's fortunes this year. If O'Neal is the kind of leader and team player he likes to portray himself as he'd accept coming off the bench as the focus of the second unit with grace. 2. If at all possible the Raptors should trade O'Neal this season. If I'm Bryan Colangelo I'm picking up the phone and making this pitch to Donnie Walsh: O'Neal and Anthony Parker to the Knicks for Marbury and Malik Rose. The Knicks get two players who might actually help them make the playoffs this season without compromising their 2010 salary cap space. The Raptors buy out Marbury and Rose, sign some scrubs and begin tanking as quickly as possible. All of a sudden the Raptors are what, $28-million under the cap this summer, when they can get a jump on the 2010 free agent class and either sign the help at the two and three they need or trade for it, while mixing a top-10 draft pick. Then they can be in a stronger position to make a case to Mr. Bosh as he enters his free agent year and hopefully have a roster deeper in elite talent - not to mention sooner - than is the case now. Obviously it's easier said than done - who knows if Walsh would even be interested? But that's the direction the Raptors should be heading. And to determine if it's the right one they need to find out if Bargnani is simply hot or if he's actually turned the corner. Sitting him behind O'Neal helps this cause not at all.