With the former Raptors due in town this week, I thought I'd look north of the border for some info on what we can expect from T.J. Ford and Rasho Nesterovic once they put on the blue and gold. Franchise from RaptorsHQ was kind enough to lend his perspective. His comments certainly didn't diminish my hopes for what to expect from Ford.
Indy Cornrows: We know the health risk involved with T.J. Ford, but can you talk about his game. How will he fit in with the uptempo system run by Jim O'Brien? Does he dominate the ball too much? What on-court risks should we be concerned about?
RaptorsHQ: Some great questions to kick things off. I guess first of all I should say that I like Ford. Do I think he was the best fit for the Raptors in the end? No, not at all. However that's not to say I don't think he's an extremely talented player, and in my opinion somewhat of an underrated one due to his injury history and the past year's fracas about "who starts" in Toronto.
So in terms of his fit with the Pacers, I think it's an almost perfect one. In all seriousness, I really can't think of many better point guards in the league with which to run Indiana's offence. Ford's style of play is tailor-made for this system as he loves to get out and run, create off the break, and exploit match-ups. He does dominate the ball at times, but mainly in Toronto I found that that was the result of Toronto's lack of movement on offence. With the dismal season that Andrea Bargnani had, Toronto really had not secondary scoring option outside of Ford so in set plays when Bosh was being doubled, at times Ford was forced to almost dribble out the clock before heaving up something at the buzzer.
Now some Raptors fans compared Ford to another former Raps' chucker in Mike James, but the two are in reality miles apart. Yes Ford at times gets a bit too comfortable in his own zone and tries to do too much, but many people forget that really he's only been in the league for about two and a half years because of his injuries. He also plays with a chip on his shoulder (which should be even bigger this year after essentially being dumped in favour of Jose) but I think with the right coaching and teammates, his decision making will improve and surrounded by the right mix of talent, he won't try to do so much.
Indy Cornrows: Jim O'Brien runs a tough camp and demands a lot of work from his players with the full backing of Larry Bird. His game-day "shoot arounds" often include full-fledged scrimmaging. Should we have any concerns with Ford's work ethic or attitude in dealing with such a disciplined environment?
RaptorsHQ: Nope, no concerns at all. Sam Mitchell can be pretty tough on his players (exhibit A - Joey Graham) so I don't think it will be too much of an adjustment. TJ worked very hard in Toronto and his attitude was fine...as long as he was starting. I guess that's the one caveat as when Ford returned from injury and started coming off the bench, that's when we started seeing the pouty looks and lackadaisical play. I don't think that will be a concern in Indiana though as it sounds like it will be his ship to captain.
The one thing I want to make clear though is that there is a difference between TJ's stewing and that of someone like Vince Carter. (Jeesh...Raptors fans sure are used to players who stew eh?) When Carter sat on the bench with a forlorn look on his face, it was because he was feeling sorry for himself and didn't really care about what effect it was having on the team. TJ on the other hand cared too much. While only about 5-11, Ford was probably the most competitive player on the club last year and when he was out with his injury there was a noticeable lack of grit on the team. That may simply be indicative of how soft the Raptors were last year but the point is that TJ just wants to win. He plays with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and needs to find a way to channel his competitive spirit better. If he can do that, it will only help take his game to the next level.
Considering that per 40 minutes he would have almost averaged 20 points and 10 assists while sporting one of the top assist to turnover ratios in the league, that next level could easily be an All-Star appearance.
Indy Cornrows: Rasho Nesterovic was a welcomed addition to this trade more so for his expiring contract than his on-court exploits. But he will be on the roster next year, so any production he provides will be an added bonus. What can we expect from Rasho? Will he be able to knock down open shots within a motion offense? What are his limitations?
RaptorsHQ: Rasho is one of those players who is extremely underrated and without being his teammate, you will never truly be able to understand how valuable he is to a club. Yes he's fairly slow footed. Yes his offensive game is quite limited. And yes he doesn't have the best hands in traffic.
However he's one of the best post defenders in the league against other bigs, plays an extremely smart brand of basketball, and does all those little things that you need from a big man. He plays the pick-and-roll extremely well and loves to roll off on pick-and-pops near the right elbow of the key. He makes that shot and a baseline jumper with great frequency and also has a nice hook-shot. I'm not sure he's a great fit as a starter if Indiana is looking to tear up and down the court, but off the bench as a change of pace he'll be great. He'll also be an important leader to the young Pacers and a joy for Jim O'Brien compared to some of the recent guys he's had to coach.
Indy Cornrows: With Jermaine O'Neal added to the roster, how do you assess the Raptors chances in the East next year? What ways do you expect J.O. to make an impact?
RaptorsHQ: Right now based on the conferences movements so far I have Toronto penciled in as the fourth best team, just ahead of Philly, Orlando and Cleveland and behind Boston and Detroit. However it's a tough call and I think it's all going to come down to health. If JO and Bosh can stay healthy, that's a pretty tough match-up for teams. Even the Celtics are going to have match-up problems in that scenario.
However if either go down, or if Jose Calderon gets hurt, they could find themselves back in the lottery. I really worry about the Jose situation because right now his expected back-up is Roko Ukic, one of Toronto's second-round picks in 2005. Roko's been a good player over in Europe for the past while, but has yet to play a single minute in the NBA.
If any of these three are lost for long periods, Toronto is going to need quantum leaps from Andrea Bargnani, Jamario Moon, Joey Graham and co in order to stay afloat in an improved Eastern Conference.
O'Neal really is the key here. His addition should finally give Toronto the rebounding and shot-blocking presence they've yearned for. This club will get a much needed injection of toughness too, something it's lacked since the days of Charles Oakley and Antonio Davis. No more will we see wings gliding through the paint untouched.
At the other end of the court, having Jermaine should free up Chris Bosh making him even more deadly, and should finally give Toronto a secondary scoring option, something it hasn't had since Vince and T-Mac. O'Neal seems extremely excited to get to work, and we can't wait for the season to get underway.