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Toronto Raptors' Chris Bosh reacts at the final buzzer after his team beat San Antonio Spurs 91-86 during action in Toronto on Sunday January 3, 2010. Bosh scored 22 points to become the Raptors all time leading scorer THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young (CHRIS YOUNG)
Toronto Raptors' Chris Bosh reacts at the final buzzer after his team beat San Antonio Spurs 91-86 during action in Toronto on Sunday January 3, 2010. Bosh scored 22 points to become the Raptors all time leading scorer THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young (CHRIS YOUNG)

Michael Grange

Raptors approach fork in the road Add to ...

One month and counting.

The NBA trade deadline is Feb. 18, and already the future of all-star forward Chris Bosh and the Toronto Raptors is being debated, rumoured and speculated on. But not by anyone who might actually know.

Raptors president Bryan Colangelo curtly brushed aside any suggestion that there was substance to reports Bosh might be on his way to Houston or maybe Los Angeles or maybe Denver.

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And Bosh, himself, has played the whole thing low-key; saying all the right things about how much he loves the city of Toronto, without actually committing himself.

It wall hit overdrive tomorrow, when the Raptors play the New York Knicks, an organization that will have spent two wasted seasons getting its finances in order hoping to lure one or even two of the 2010 free-agent class - of which Bosh is a well-respected supporting act to headliners LeBron James and Dwayne Wade.

How it will all shake out remains a mystery and anyone who pretends otherwise is doing just that. Potential trade rumours will get floated; some will sound plausible. It's not rocket science.

What it really comes down to is philosophy.

As in: What kind of organization does Raptors owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. want to be?

The type that dreams big and inspires their fans to do the same? Or true to type for an ownership group dominated by a pension plan and buttressed by a bank: Eager to do the right thing, but not if the risks are too great; the ROI too difficult to calculate.

After a shaky start, it's fairly evident Toronto will be a playoff team this season, thanks to Bosh and a career year in the making. If Hedo Turkoglu can wake up from his snooze and provide value for his five-year, $53-million (U.S.) contract, the Raptors might even make the first round interesting.

But then it's on ownership, specifically the faceless money men of MLSE's majority stakeholder, the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. Providing it doesn't fail its first test of will at the trade deadline and unload Bosh for 50 cents on the dollar, MLSE will need to show Bosh and the Raptors fan base it is going to be serious about competing for an NBA championship, like minority owner and chairman Larry Tanenbaum always likes to say it is.

The formula isn't magical, but it's expensive. The NBA salary cap exists in name only - teams can spend to the moon as long as they are willing to pay a tax to the league for the privilege.

There are five or perhaps six serious contenders for the title as the 2009-10 season approaches the halfway mark - the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs and perhaps the Dallas Mavericks. All of them are "tax" teams that spend well over the $67-million the Raptors have booked in player salaries.

Teams that spend over $69.2-million are taxed a dollar for every dollar over that threshold. As a result, the Lakers are spending about $120-million to defend their NBA title and keep star guard Kobe Bryant happy.

For a deep-pocketed ownership group, the timing couldn't be better: More teams than ever are looking to cut costs and there will be a larger-than-usual number of free agents in play.

A franchise with the money and the vision could set itself up.

Ignoring whether Bosh will re-sign with the Raptors, should they re-sign him?

If MLSE wants to be taken seriously by Bosh and Raptors fans, the solution couldn't be simpler: Give him the six-year, $130-million contract he's earned, and make clear you're willing to spend whatever it takes to add talent around him.

Bosh will get his money here or somewhere else. What he wants is some high-priced help.

Keeping Bosh means being a tax team. It means taking financial risks with no obvious return and hundreds of millions of dollars hinging on a wonky knee.

Owners who want to hold trophies and spray champagne recognize those risks and take them. And organizations like that earn the money and loyalty of a fan base who want memories and legends in exchange for their money and time, rather than a race to mediocrity.

It's a crazy, risky business with no guarantees.

The question, as the trade rumours fly for the next month and (more likely) as Bosh's future with the franchise is determined this summer, is: Does a pension plan have the guts for it?

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