Conundrum for Raptors

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:57 AM ET

Mike James did the smart thing when he was traded to Toronto by the Houston Rockets Oct. 4.

He packed a bag, kissed his wife and two daughters goodbye and made his way from Houston to St. Catharines, Ont., for the Raptors training camp.

James very easily could have done what other pro athletes do in that situation, especially American pro athletes who get shipped to Canada.

He could have pouted, whined, bad-mouthed his former team and spent days getting his sorry butt north of the border. Instead, James arrived at Brock University with a smile on his face and a determination to make the best of the situation.

To be perfectly honest, the Amityville, N.Y., native did not want to leave Houston, where he was building a new home, and he certainly did not want to be moved to a team that had not made the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, a team that plays in Canada no less.

Despite what we Torontonians believe, a great many American athletes still view this place as an outpost: The money looks weird and they show far too much hockey on the sports highlight shows. Antonio Davis, one of the more sophisticated players in the league, complained that his children were being deprived of an American education (you know, World War II began in 1941, that sort of thing). And then there's the hassle of having to go through customs all the time. It is quite a list.

Fortunately, James did not think that way. Instead of pouting, he grabbed the bull by the horns and has played like a house on fire for his new team. Sure his shot selection sometimes leaves something to be desired and he often solicits funny looks in the dressing room with his weird pronouncements and high-pitch crooning, but James has made Raptors general manager Rob Babcock look very good. James may be a bit eccentric, but compared to Alston he's as down to earth as Atticus Finch. He also is playing better than Alston and his contract is much more manageable. That is, he's under contract for only this season, at a relatively reasonable $3.4 million US, and next, at $3.7 million. Next year's deal, however, is a player's option, meaning James can opt to become a free agent if he feels he can entice somebody to pay him more.

And that, my friends, is a given. James is having a career year, averaging 16.5 points and 5.0 assists per game, while shooting 46% from the field and 43% from three-point range. This man, who bounced from team to team during his five seasons as an NBA journeyman, is a hot commodity and will flirt with many teams when the season is over. So where does that leave the Raptors?

Babcock says he loves the way James is playing and certainly would be interested in having him around for another year.

The problem is that this is another Donyell Marshall scenario. The Raptors risk losing James in the off-season and getting zero back if they don't trade him.

Mainly for salary cap reasons last season, the Raptors neglected to trade Marshall before the 2004-05 season ended, even though it was all but certain he would be leaving as a free agent. In the end, he signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Raps got squat in return.

The smart thing, at least on paper, would be to trade James for something. But that also sends a negative message to the fans -- especially if the Raptors are in playoff contention, which is not totally out of the realm of possibility in the Eastern Conference. But by trading James, are you not effectively throwing in the towel on this season?

Jose Calderon will not be ready to carry the load in the backcourt next season.

So what's a poor GM to do?


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