•Raptors overwhelmingly won the Ibaka trade
•Ibaka arrives at the perfect time
•All parties involved now have plenty on the line
Big trades are always supposed to involve a little bit of pain. You give something to get something. Sometimes you give a lot.
They are, by definition, risky.
But as the Toronto Raptors and their fans get used to the idea that Serge Ibaka materialized on their doorstep as if manufactured out of thin air and fairy dust, that they have acquired perhaps the precise missing piece to complete their puzzle while only surrendering a talented but inconsistent bench player and a late first-round pick, it’s fair to ask – what pain? What risk?
The Raptors win on this deal is so overwhelming that it’s almost hard to see the downside.
Ok, for Raptors president Masai Ujiri, for Raptors fans, there is no downside. There is no risk.
The upside? The upside is real. The Raptors won 56 games and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals with Luis Scola as their starting power forward one year ago. I love Luis Scola. He might lead the world in intangibles and he turned himself into a very good three-point shooter. But when last seen, the 36-year-old Argentine was a fringe rotation player on the Brooklyn Nets, the worst team in the NBA.
This year the Raptors are a top-four team in the East while starting rookie Pascal Siakam, Jacob Poeltl, or Lucas Nogueira at power forward for 46 of 55 games. The threesome had seven career starts combined prior to this season – mainly meaningless ones by Nogueira last season — and they were all playing ahead of Jared Sullinger, who was acquired to be a starter but has been injured and out of game shape all season.
Now they get a three-time All-NBA first-team defender who has led the league in blocked shots four times, and at 39 per cent, is shooting better from distance than Ross (37.5 per cent) with nearly as many makes (83 compared with 96).
And he arrives at the perfect moment, as the Raptors have been sagging, losing 10 of their last 14 games, with concerns about the club’s direction bubbling out of the dressing room and into the public sphere, expressed by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the franchise’s twin pillars.
“He’s a guy that we’ve always had an eye on,” said Ujiri, who has known Ibaka, 27, since he coached against the Congolese big man in the African junior championships a decade ago. “But I think our team needed a boost, to be honest, and we’re at that point where I think everybody knows, it’s not rocket science, that [a starting power forward] was a missing link on our team.
“Patrick [Patterson] has done a great job but I think we needed a couple of guys in that position, a prime guy in that position. He’s one of the better power forwards in the league and hopefully he fits in with us … I also think with where we are as a team, honestly I think our team, the coaches, where Kyle and DeMar are, our organization, fans, I think it’s a good boost for us to see if we can bring us some good momentum and see where it takes us.”
Lowry is as shrewd a basketball mind as you’re going to find and when he was asked what need Ibaka filled, he basically shrugged his shoulders and said, “him,” as in the Raptors needed all kinds of things that only special talents like Ibaka can provide all in one swoop.
Lowry then listed the attributes Ibaka provides like ticking off items on a menu:
“It’s kind of hard to pick one,” he said. “We could use the shooting, we could use the toughness, we could use the floor-running, we could use the shot-blocking.”
Ibaka instantly becomes the Raptors’ most experienced playoff performer, having been to four Western Conference Finals and an NBA Final. He’s the guy who punched the Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin’s privates in a heated moment and at times could physically intimidate the best in the game. It’s like if Bismack Biyombo could catch, dribble and shoot threes.
“I’ve known this guy for years,” said Ujiri, who remembered Ibaka grabbing 20 rebounds against his Nigerian junior national team as a teenager. “He’s a hell of a competitor, he brings playoff experience, he’s played in the NBA Finals before. Everyone knows who Serge is, he’s a warrior. I think every time he steps on the court he competes, he’ll give us good rim protection, he’s a good defender and I think he can play multiple positions, too, which will help us.”
But the move brings with it the risk of high expectations. The downside is failing to meet them. At this point, Ujiri and general manager Jeff Weltman and the rest of the Raptors management team are off the hook. They’ve done their job. It’s hard to imagine another playoff team making as significant of an addition before the Feb. 23 deadline. The price was right and the timing was right.
If this group fails over the next two months? Then things can get really crazy and they would be able to justify a teardown rather than reinvesting in a core that doesn’t look like it can win big.
Now the heat lamp shifts elsewhere. Lowry and DeRozan made their dissatisfaction with the Raptors direction known in recent days, and while Ujiri says their comments Sunday didn’t precipitate the deal, it’s safe to assume they lent urgency to getting something done before the all-star break.
How will DeRozan and Lowry handle adding their most talented teammate yet?
Until now, the Raptors’ all-star duo could enjoy their status as the NBA’s plucky underdog superstars, doing their magic off the radar, every step forward a minor miracle and a new bar for a franchise with limited pedigree.
Now? DeRozan might be the third-most talented player on the roster. How quickly will he realize that when he’s finishing a tight game and he’s got Ibaka, Patterson and Lowry spreading the floor, him driving into the defence looking for a foul or forcing a contested shot is no longer the best option at crunch time? If he fails to figure that out, and the Raptors flounder, it’s his reputation that will come down a notch.
Like DeRozan, Lowry’s enjoyed the ultimate green light the past three years. Learning to trust your teammates and take your foot off the gas is an art in the NBA and now it’s up to Lowry to prove he’s got that in his palette.
“He’s a hell of a competitor, he brings playoff experience, he’s played in the NBA Finals before. Everyone knows who Serge is, he’s a warrior.”
Who else has something to win or lose from the Ibaka deal?
Add Raptors head coach Dwane Casey to the list. As the Raptors have struggled over the past six weeks, the scrutiny has inevitably been turned up on Casey, perhaps unfairly. The Raptors have been short-handed since Jan. 1 and you can only patch those holes over so much.
Now? Casey has – on paper – what might be the most complete starting lineup in the Eastern Conference this side of Cleveland. They have experience, scoring, versatility and talent. Ibaka has one of the best defensive pedigrees in the NBA.
If the Raptors can’t pull things together over the remaining 26 games and into the playoffs, Casey will feel the heat, and justifiably.
How about MLSE?
The last three seasons have been gravy for the ownership group. Lots of happy surprises, lots of winning, lots of buy-in from an expanding fan base.
But if the Ibaka-DeRozan-Lowry core catches fire, the only thing that will keep them together in the off-season will be money. Lots and lots of money. Lowry and Ibaka are both heading for free agency and keeping them both could require a $300-million investment or more. The Raptors have never been a tax team. Suddenly they might be staring at a $50-million luxury tax bill that extends years into the future.
It’s easy to talk about winning championships. But having a veteran, contending team requires taking suitcases full of money and lighting it on fire year after year.
MLSE hasn’t had to make that decision yet. Now they get to show their true colours.
Their risk is being exposed for not being willing to finish the job Ujiri started on Monday. The risk faced by Lowry, DeRozan and Casey is not being able to.