Keep O'Neal in supporting role

FRANK ZICARELLI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:03 AM ET

For now, Jermaine O'Neal will embrace his new-found role as backup.

For the time being, O'Neal will get his minutes and his touches when one of Chris Bosh or Andrea Bargnani needs a breather or gets into foul trouble.

With his time in Toronto officially on the clock, O'Neal knows he could get traded at any minute prior to the NBA's Feb. 19 trade deadline.

But after watching the Raptors impose their will in the frontcourt against the visiting Sacramento Kings, one can't help but wonder why they would even contemplate trading O'Neal.

Combined, Toronto's three-headed monster accounted for 66 of the team's 113 points and 25 of the Raptors' 43 rebounds in a 113-97 win.

It is a perfect mix in an imperfect time.

Suddenly, general manager Bryan Colangelo must decide whether it's best to keep O'Neal in a Raptors uniform, cast in the unfamiliar role as a reserve, or trade him.

The likely destination remains Miami, but O'Neal is so plugged into the business of basketball that he knows there are other suitors.

LOOKING GOOD

Granted, it was one game and the Kings aren't exactly the most imposing when it comes to frontcourt prowess.

Except for one sequence when O'Neal and Bosh miscommunicated on defence, and for the record Brad Miller missed his open baseline look, the Raptors triumvirate looked in sync and in total control.

Bargnani's confidence is at such a high level that no shot, no matter how many defenders are in his face, is a bad one. Bosh's jumper is so smooth and he's also aggressive in attacking the hole.

O'Neal is going up against second-string centres and emerged yesterday as the only player on the evening to post a double-double, his seventh of the season and first in more than a month.

The Raptors are getting healthy and seem primed to finally go on an extended winning streak.

The caveat, of course, being O'Neal and his future, at least in the short term.

"There's always a chance,'' O'Neal said of possibly being moved.

When he discusses basketball with Colangelo, O'Neal has yet to broach the trade speculation that continues to swirl.

O'Neal admitted that prior to Toronto's visit to Chicago last Friday, he spoke to Colangelo about a possible internship.

"I'd like to be president of an NBA team one day,'' O'Neal said. "That's the kind of relationship I have with Bryan."

Hypothetically, then, if O'Neal were in charge of a team that featured a six-time all-star who now is coming off the bench on a team that can use a perimeter defender and creator, would he trade that experienced frontcourt piece?

"I can't answer that," he said.

But that is the most pressing question in Raptorland.

O'Neal knows he's being pursued by a handful of teams that can use an experienced post presence.

No team needs an experienced body in the paint more than the Raptors, who have Jake Voskuhl and Nathan Jawai as the only healthy bigs coming off a bench, a bench interim head coach Jay Triano wisely has shortened.

"He's a veteran player,'' Triano said of O'Neal. "He'll come off the bench and still contribute for us. I like our rotation right now."

But how long will it last? How long will O'Neal accept being a backup? How long before he gets traded?

If the rumours are true and if the Heat are serious about acquiring O'Neal, the Raptors will get Shawn Marion's expiring contract and an onerous contract in the form of Marcus Banks. As of today, the Raptors should take O'Neal off the market, sit down with the proud veteran and tell him how important he is coming off the bench.

In the off-season, there will be plenty of time to trade O'Neal, whose expiring contract in 2010 will be a huge trade piece.

The Raptors may finally have hit their stride and to trade O'Neal would only lead to further uncertainty.

Players, finally, are getting healthy and they know when they'll get their minutes.

Maybe there is hope for the Raptors, but only if they keep O'Neal and somehow ensure that he accepts his role.


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