Clippers’ Serge Ibaka: ‘I never thought I would leave the Raptors’

New Los Angeles Clippers forward Serge Ibaka outlines why he thought he would be staying with the Toronto Raptors, even before free agency started.

It’s an age-old mantra: Everything happens for a reason.

And it’s one that new Los Angeles Clippers centre Serge Ibaka believes wholeheartedly, citing the famous phrase on Thursday when discussing his off-season decision to leave the Toronto Raptors in free agency, a franchise he had been a part of for more than three seasons and with whom he’d captured his first and only NBA championship in 2019.

But while the big man is now fully committed to aiding the Clippers in their title hopes after inking a two-year, $19 million deal (complete with a player option in the second season) with them on Nov. 21, he was quick to admit his present position was not one he expected to be in.

“Even before free agency started,” Ibaka said in his first Clippers media availability Thursday, “I never thought I would leave the Raptors.”

Certainly, the Raptors, too, would’ve liked to have brought the 31-year-old back into the fold. But their off-season priority of retaining salary cap flexibility likely meant that they wouldn’t offer Ibaka anything beyond a one-year contract, and that they also wouldn’t be able to guarantee anything in the near future.

With Toronto looking ahead and having locked up its core for the ensuing years in Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby (he will likely enter restricted free agency next off-season), the allure of a team in win-now mode is certainly understandable for Ibaka at this stage of his career.

“When I said I wanted to stay with the Raptors, it was true. But last minute, things change,” he said. “People see things differently.”

Now, Ibaka reunites with former Raptors teammate Kawhi Leonard (whom he has become good friends with) on a team that failed spectacularly last post-season, blowing a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the second round and prompting some significant changes, including replacing ex-head coach Doc Rivers with Tyronn Lue.

But Ibaka isn’t concerned about last season, and is confident that his relationship with Leonard, his experience playing deep into the playoffs, and his valuable skillset as a modern stretch-five will be key in taking the Clippers, a lethal club on paper, to where they want to go.

“[Leonard] knows as a teammate what I can do for the team,” Ibaka said. “Just make things smoother and easier.”

Unlike some player-franchise breakups in the past, there is evidently no animosity between Ibaka and the Raptors, and the former was effusive in his praise for all aspects of the organization and its members.

“It was not an easy decision to make. Because you know I love Toronto,” Ibaka said. “The last three-and-a-half years were great. They are a great organization, the fans are amazing, they all love me. I had fun with my teammates, playing with my teammates. I even told Kyle [Lowry] and Freddy [VanVleet] how much I loved playing with those two guys — they made me better as a player. And the organization challenged me to be a better person, a better teammate, on and off the court.”

The Raptors, who also lost Marc Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency, ultimately reloaded their front court in the off-season with Aron Baynes and Alex Len (they also re-signed Chris Boucher to a larger deal), two certainly worthwhile additions the team can be satisfied with. But for a club who will be valuing a competitive roster for a multitude of reasons, the loss of Ibaka still stings. Maybe even a tad more so now that it’s so clear the two parties would have loved a reunion.

Everything happens for a reason, right?

“Maybe it was time,” Ibaka said, “time for me and time for the Raptors.”

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