Serge Ibaka’s departure a heavy blow to Raptors’ championship aspirations

Michael Grange joins Sportsnet Central to discuss the Los Angeles Clippers signing Serge Ibaka, what impact it has for the Toronto Raptors and what their next moves could be.

For now the details are few and the circumstances not completely understood, but on the same day the Toronto Raptors were able to retain their free-agent point guard, they lost their most viable big man.

The enthusiasm that greeted news Saturday morning that Fred VanVleet had re-signed with Toronto was tempered when Serge Ibaka signed with the Los Angeles Clippers for a two-year deal worth a reported $19 million late on Saturday night.

The move — which was unexpected — leaves the Raptors without another member of their championship core, one of the most colourful players in franchise history, and for the moment without a viable centre under contract.

“We’ll be okay,” was Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s text message shortly after the deal was reported.

Ujiri and Raptors general manager Bobby Webster deserve more than the benefit of the doubt at this stage, given they have seven straight playoff appearances to their credit not to mention the 2019 title. But it’s hard to spin the notion of Ibaka leaving as anything other than a heavy blow to a team hoping to compete for championships.

For the moment Ibaka’s combination of floor-spreading shooting and defensive ability seems difficult to replace.

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Given that the Raptors’ other incumbent centre, Marc Gasol, is a free agent garnering his share of interest elsewhere and the only other bigs on the roster are an under-sized Chris Boucher — who has never played steady NBA minutes — and second-year Dewan Hernandez, a long-term project at best, Ujiri’s definition of ‘okay’ might be relative.

What’s not hard to argue is that by the time Ibaka was ready to leave he was on his way to becoming a folk hero in Toronto.

The slick-shooting centre with the chiselled frame and cheekbones to match had morphed from distant and taciturn early in his tour with a pair of weak playoff performances to his name to loose and free and one of the Raptors’ most important playoff heroes. His last games for Toronto were some of his very best.

He played here parts of four seasons after arriving from the Orlando Magic at the trade deadline in 2017 and seemed to improve in subtle and not-so-subtle ways each year — no small feat for someone with that many professional miles on their tires.

Last year was his 11th season and might have been his best — he averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds a game on a per/36-minute basis, both career highs — and shot 39 per cent from three on nearly five attempts per game.

He was better as a starter — shooting 43.7 per cent from three in 27 games in that role — and was even better in the playoffs where he shot 57 per cent from the floor, 51.1 per cent from deep and was one of the Raptors’ few reliable options as Toronto’s offence ground to a halt in the second round against Boston.

But so complete was Ibaka’s transformation as a Raptor that it was his off-the-floor presence that so many fans were mourning when news broke that he was reuniting with Fun Guy Kawhi Leonard — ‘What it do baby’ — to take a run at another ring with the Los Angeles Clippers.

There was his must-see How Hungry Are You cooking shows where he served guests some truly disturbing dishes, including beef penis pizza, memorably, to Leonard. No hard feelings, apparently.

There was How Bored Are You, when he lit up the dark days of quarantine for so many from his own locked-down life — albeit from a much nicer apartment than most. And there was Avec Classe — the YouTube series where the fashion-forward Ibaka invited teammates for a makeover, with occasionally hilarious results and viral arguments about scarves.

As a Raptor he became a person and player in full, it seemed.

“… He’s more confident,” Kyle Lowry observed when I interviewed him after he attended a documentary Ibaka produced about his improbable journey from the streets of Brazzaville, Congo, to the Raptors championship parade. “You win a championship and things like that happen. You’re able to go out into other avenues. I think winning a championship gave him a bigger stage to promote his continent, his people, and he’s doing that even more now.”

In that context a tour through Los Angeles will suit Ibaka well — he’s got a lot to offer on and off the floor. If he can help lead the Clippers to their first-ever title, his platform will only grow.

But the Raptors problem is what he leaves behind. If not Ibaka or Gasol — or even if Gasol returns, given how much the Spanish veteran struggled in 2019-20 — then who? Then what?

There are options available and the Raptors can offer the full mid-level ($9.3 million for one year or potentially $39 million over four) if they must.

Could Aron Baynes, the bruising Suns centre who has recently developed a passable three-point shot be enticed for one year of the mid-level ($9.3 million) — that might be optimistic. Former Raptor Bismack Biyombo would probably be cheaper and would fill a hole defensively even if the offensively challenged big man might create one on the other end. Hassan Whiteside can block shots and rebound with the best of them, but seems to create drama at every stop. He’s as big as big bodies get.

Perhaps the Raptors’ best options might be more small lineups, with either Pascal Siakam and/or OG Anunoby logging more minutes as the theoretical centre in five-out sets that are becoming more and more common. There were some promising signs of that during the playoffs.

The Raptors — Ujiri, Webster and head coach Nick Nurse — generally figure things out.

That’s the reassuring part. But for the moment losing Ibaka seems like the opposite of okay, and how he performed on the floor was only half of it.

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