Traded guard Marcus Banks, forward Shawn Marion and cash considerations to the Toronto Raptors for forward Jamario Moon, center Jermaine O'Neal and a conditional first-round pick. [2/13]
While the one-sentence takeaway from this deal is that Marion was traded for O'Neal, the entire trade needs to be taken into consideration to see why it makes sense for the Heat.
Let's start with Miami's new O'Neal in the middle. This season, perception of O'Neal's game has caught up with reality--O'Neal has been in decline for several years now. The irony is that, when he's been on the floor, O'Neal has actually been somewhat more effective this year than last. The biggest difference has been O'Neal shooting 47.3 percent from the field after two years of sub-44 percent accuracy. Still, O'Neal remains a below-average offensive player because he does not get to the free-throw line particularly often for a go-to post player. The touted benefits of adding a "post presence" are overrated for the Heat.
Where O'Neal has the potential to be a bigger factor is at the other end of the floor. As recently as two years ago, he was my pick for Defensive Player of the Year. O'Neal remains an elite shot-blocker, rejecting 5.4 percent of opposing two-point attempts to rank amongst league leaders. Joel Anthony is actually a better shot-blocker, sending back 7.2 percent of attempts, but the rest of Anthony's game is so limited that he has averaged less than 20 minutes per game (and, in part because Anthony is a very poor defensive rebounder, Miami defends worse with him on the floor).
Besides Anthony, the Heat has been using the undersized Udonis Haslem (a natural power forward) and the immobile Jamaal Magloire in the middle. Compared to them, O'Neal represents a massive defensive upgrade.
The key player in this deal from Miami's perspective might be Moon, who figures to step in for Marion at small forward. Really, the Heat had two very different Marions--the moderately-effective small forward, starting and playing about 25 minutes a night; and the highly-productive power forward Marion, good for 12 minutes or so. As I discussed last month in my Every Play Counts breakdown of Marion's game, he has been much more effective over the course of his career as a power forward, a trend exacerbated by how little Miami used him while playing the wing.
In fact, you can make a reasonable argument that Moon is a better fit for what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra wants from his small forward than was Marion. With Dwyane Wade handling the ball, Miami's offense calls for the small forward to spend much of his time on the weak side, spotting up or looking to cut to the basket. Moon won't be confused with his former Toronto teammate Jason Kapono, who once filled that role, but he's a 34.5 percent three-point shooter who has made nearly five times as many triples as Marion has this season.
Defensively, Marion and Moon are similar in terms of how their athleticism allows them to be a factor by generating both steals and blocks from the wing. In fact, on a per-possession basis, their numbers in these categories are well-matched. Moon blocks 2.6 percent of opponent two-point attempts to Marion's 2.4 percent, and records steals on 2.4 percent of possessions, topping Marion's 2.0 percent.
Raptors fans had become frustrated with Moon's occasionally dubious decision making, but that problem does not show up in the statistics. Toronto has been a remarkable 11.1 points per 100 possessions better with Moon on the floor this season, having been +8.8 a year ago when he was on the court.
The more challenging aspect of the deal will be replacing Marion's time at power forward. Some of those minutes will go to Haslem out of the playing time he had seen at center. The rest will presumably go to continue to ramp up rookie Michael Beasley's role. The expectation is also that Beasley may now see some time at small forward, but I hope this does not come to pass. Moving Beasley to the wing seems likely to reaffirm his worst tendency, settling for long jumpers and staying on the perimeter. Playing Beasley in the post may cost him and the team some in the short term, but is necessary to his development into the offensive force he was at Kansas State. Defensively, it's hard to see Beasley having the quickness to stay in front of players on the wing.
Add it all up and the improvement at center outweighs the drop-off the Heat will experience in losing Marion's minutes at power forward, with small forward largely a wash. Miami is a slightly better team going into the stretch run, which could make a difference in playoff positioning. The Heat holds the fifth seed in the East, while trailing the sixth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in point differential. This trade improves Miami's chances of holding off the Sixers and potentially passing the Atlanta Hawks for home-court advantage in the first round.
From a longer-term perspective, taking on the additional year of O'Neal's contract means the Heat will be playing the free-agent market in the summer of 2010 instead of 2009. Miami will have more room in 2010 because Banks was the only player in this deal with a contract running through the 2010-11 season. (Re-signing Moon, a restricted free agent at season's end, could potentially cut into that space.) The Heat was once expected to make a run at Carlos Boozer, but with his injury problems and Miami's depth at power forward, it is understandable why the team would prefer to pass.
Deferring cap space to 2010 has another benefit for the Heat in that the front office will have another year to evaluate its own personnel before confronting major free-agent decisions. Rookies Beasley and Mario Chalmers are key pieces for Miami, which will have a better idea of their long-term futures a year from now. In particular, the Heat has to figure out whether Beasley is a second anchor scorer to go alongside Wade or whether that player will need to be added in free agency.
Traded forward Jamario Moon, center Jermaine O'Neal and a conditional first-round pick to the Miami Heat for guard Marcus Banks, forward Shawn Marion and cash considerations. [2/13]
Like the Detroit Pistons before them, the Raptors have pulled off a major trade that--at least in theory--allows them to prepare to reap cap space without having to sacrifice production this season. Trading for Marion and his expiring contract lets Bryan Colangelo wait to make a decision on the direction of the franchise (rebuilding or competing) until this summer. For the next two months, Toronto will try to crawl back into the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference with a slightly revamped lineup.
Mere months after he joined the Raptors, O'Neal's departure was assured by Andrea Bargnani securing the starting center job while O'Neal was sidelined. O'Neal willingly accepted a bench role and has been playing heavy minutes with Chris Bosh sidelined, but it was only a matter of time before O'Neal was moved--especially with Toronto floundering.
The big question for the Raptors is what kind of production they will get from Marion. My Every Play Counts breakdown concluded thusly: "Put Marion in a situation where he can get out more frequently in transition, spend more time playing at power forward and be an option on offense without the ball in his hands, and his scoring average and his value will shoot back near where they were when Marion was a perennial All-Star in Phoenix."
Going through these factors, Toronto doesn't score particularly well. The Raptors and Heat play at essentially identical paces, ranking 19th and 21st in the league in possessions per 48 minutes respectively. With Bosh and Bargnani up front, Marion will start at small forward, though he should get backup minutes at power forward as he did in Miami. How Toronto uses Marion is more difficult to predict. He won't be playing alongside a ball-dominating wing like Wade, giving him more opportunities to be involved on the strong side. However, in Bosh and Bargnani the Raptors have two effective options as screeners for point guard Jose Calderon, meaning Marion won't likely be involved in a ton of pick-and-rolls.
To make a run at a third straight trip to the postseason, Toronto will need Marion to be the Matrix of old. The five-game gap between the Raptors and eighth-seeded Milwaukee is hardly insurmountable. The bigger problem is that Toronto would have to pass six teams to secure the eighth and final playoff spot, and the Raptors' point differential (-2.8 ppg) is the worst of the group.
Dealing two rotation players puts more pressure on a Raptors bench that has been ineffective this season. Even with Marion playing far more minutes than either Moon or O'Neal, Toronto will have to find another ten minutes a game from amongst Joey Graham, Kris Humphries, Jason Kapono or Jake Voskuhl. The Raptors can't count on much from Banks, who had slipped to a distant third on the depth chart in Miami and may not even be an upgrade on backup point guards Roko Ukic and Will Solomon at this point.
If Toronto doesn't make progress, Marion's impending free agency does offer the possibility of making changes again this summer in an effort to put a winning team around Bosh before he hits the market. The Raptors will likely have around $10 million in cap space to go after a second-tier free agent or target multiple reinforcements to add depth. Toronto also could re-sign Marion if the fit is right or roll the space over to 2010, although that would be a blow to their chances of retaining Bosh.
Ultimately, Marion's expiring deal limits the risk for the Raptors. If things don't work out, they've surrendered a lottery-protected first-round pick (getting back some helpful cash) to accelerate their cap space by a year. So while I don't love this deal from Toronto's perspective, it's hard to dislike it in isolation.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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