Raps did right thing

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:53 AM ET

ST. CATHARINES -- It isn't that Rafer Alston was a bad guy.

Truth be told, most of the other players in the Raptors locker room seem to like him.

Even coach Sam Mitchell, who got crossways with Alston more than a few times last season, has only nice things to say now.

But Alston is an ex-Raptor today for a reason, and that reason is that he was a load.

Nobody could have been looking forward to another season -- let alone five more -- of Alston's emotional volatility, especially on a team that is more than likely to struggle.

Over the past 15 months, everybody has been quick to indict general manager Rob Babcock for all the ills that plague his team. Signing Alston may have been one of them but, in recognizing that it was time to cut bait, Babcock should get a pat on the back for being able to pull it off without having to give him away.

In return for Alston, they get a well-grounded, defensively savvy veteran, a guy who played on a championship team in Detroit as recently as two years ago.

Mike James isn't the second coming of Isiah Thomas. He's not even a true point guard, but he has speed and a sharp eye from three-point range and, by all accounts, he is a level-headed presence in the locker room.

More than that, the Raptors will save up to $18 million US over the life of Alston's contract.

James is under contract for this year at $3.4 million and next year at $3.7 million. By that time, Babcock is hopeful the team will be in a competitive state, have plenty of cap room and will be in the market for a high-end man to run the point.

"This certainly gives us a little bit more flexibility down the road, regarding the cap," Babcock said.

Babcock also is hopeful that Jose Calderon, recently signed out of Spain, and Roko Ukic, drafted from Croatia, will develop into NBA-calibre guards. With James, the team's contractual obligations are only two years. They would have been obligated to Alston for five more years.

"Our plan is to get a little bit younger and this gives us the flexibility to do that," Babcock said.

The plan includes better defence, and James fits quite nicely in that aspect.

"Mike James is a quality person and a quality player,' Mitchell said. "He has playoff experience and has played for some good coaches.

"He's a tough defender and an excellent three-point shooter, so we're not going to lose anything there. We just felt it was a better fit for our team."

As much of a pain as Alston was last season, Mitchell has nothing but positives to say.

"We wish Rafer well," he said. "He tried to do everything we asked. It's just part of the business."

The elephant in the room throughout all the discussion of what a wonderful person and player Alston is, though, was Alston's emotional volatility. He was an exposed nerve end, and nobody could be certain when he would explode next.

A month into the 2004-05 season, after he was benched for taking a technical foul during a game in Boston, Alston threatened to retire, a bizarre statement given he had just signed a six-year, $28-million deal. That was the first red flag Alston was going to be a disruptive force.

In January, he was fined by the league for abuse of an official. And later that month, he was suspended by the team for an outburst at practice.

He and Mitchell clashed at least one more time before the season, mercifully, was over. On that occasion, he demanded an apology but didn't get one.

At the dawn of training camp, all seemed sweetness and light in Raptorland. Even Mitchell and Alston seemed to have agreed that what happened last season was simply water under the bridge.

Perhaps part of that understanding attitude, at least on Mitchell's part, was founded upon the knowledge that a deal was close which would remove the irritant from his locker room.

All in all, it was a good day in Raptorland, and there have been too few of those lately.


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