As we now enter the NBA Finals, the L.A. Lakers face an unlikely opponent in the Orlando Magic.
The Magic are a team that have relied on team offense coupled with some hot 3-point shooting to get to where they are, but there is no better reason for their playoff success than one Mickael Pietrus.
The same Mickael Pietrus that could have possibly been a Raptor two seasons ago.
In a year full of disappointments, "what could have been" has been something I've avoided talking about all year.
Draft picks, trades that didn't happen, and loads of other what if scenarios have been on the minds of many Raptors fans across the country. They're the type of thoughts that no one can blame Raptors' fans for thinking, but they're also the type of thoughts that never consider the overall chain of events. For example, if you draft Andre Iguodala, you would probably not get the chance to get Andrea Bargnani or Bryan Colangelo, etc, etc.
However, the benefit of free agency what if scenarios is that they're fairly straight forward.
Two summers ago, Bryan Colangelo had to make a tough decision. With the mid-level exemption available, he decided to offer Jason Kapono approximately $24 million over six years. Pietrus, on the other hand, received a contract worth just over $21 million with a player option for an extra year. Two years later, one player has struggled to find his place on a mediocre team, while the other has become an integral part of an NBA finals team.
But just what makes Pietrus so special?
For one thing, against one of the better teams in the league, Pietrus managed to single-handedly out score the entire Cavaliers bench in most of the Magic wins. He discovered a sweet spot in the corner where he could set up shop and bomb unconditionally. Like Mo Pete and Anthony Parker, the corner three point shot is his best weapon offensively, allowing him to score, but also allowing him to survey the field and decide when to drop down into the paint to help with rebounding.
And, unlike just about every other Raptor in the past two years, Pietrus is a player with enough athleticism to finish around the rim, and enough sense to figure out when to slash towards the basket.
However, what has been most impressive about Pietrus has had to be his defense.
Against LeBron James, Pietrus managed to challenge the league MVP to score. No one of course can completely shut down a player of Lebron's talent but Pietrus was largely responsible for making sure LBJ never shot higher than 46% in the final four Eastern Conference games, putting an end to Nike's "Puppet Dreams." At 6-6 with long arms, Pietrus was tall enough to distract James while still quick enough to stay in front of James until help arrived from his teammate, usually Dwight Howard.
He's also one of the stronger on the ball defenders, using his girth to prevent easy forays to the hoop and averaging slightly over three rebounds per game, Pietrus helped out the Orlando front court by grabbing some key loose rebounds over the course of the series.
All of which adds up to the question: just how much better would the Raptors be with Pietrus?
I don't think it's much of a stretch to say the team would have jumped up by at least a few wins. His "Wins Produced" score after 50 games in the past regular season was estimated to finish around 2.2 however I'd hazard a guess that during the NBA playoffs, that number has been closer to someone like Trevor Ariza, responsible of producing 5.1 wins per season. And to me that number sounds about right when you consider the benefits of his defence at the 2-3, not to mention his toughness and ability to get to the rim.
Franchise has often cited the Jason Kapono signing as the first major flaw in Bryan Colangelo's plans and it's hard not to disagree. A player like Pietrus wouldn't have broken the bank, and definitely would have upgraded Toronto in various key areas.
We're seeing the result of this decision now, as two years after passing on Mickael, BC now finds himself frantically searching this off-season for just such a player.