Ibaka trade a slam dunk for Raptors
Twenty-four hours earlier the sky was falling. The Raptors had lost 10 of 14 games, the latest of which was their ugliest yet and prompted Kyle Lowry‘s cryptic comments that many perceived as a shot at the head coach. The patience team president Masai Ujiri had become known for was being questioned: Why hasn’t he stepped in? Why hasn’t he made a move?
On Tuesday morning that patience paid off. Toronto’s first trade in nearly 20 months was a big one – Terrence Ross and the worst of its two first-round picks in 2017 are headed to Orlando in exchange for Serge Ibaka, a long-coveted player and one that immediately addresses the team’s weakest position.
The Raptors have been in on just about every power forward that became available over the last 19 months – either in free agency or on the trade market – including Ibaka this past summer. With Oklahoma City shopping the 27-year-old ahead of June’s NBA draft, Ujiri kicked the tires but the Thunder’s asking price, according to sources, was substantial: Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph, Norman Powell and Toronto’s ninth-overall selection, which was ultimately used to select Jakob Poeltl.
Their foundation has already been built on two star, albeit ball dominant, guards and a talented young centre who’s defensive shortcomings occasionally overshadow his offensive strengths. The player they had hoped to add was one that could tie those pieces together and help fill the gaps in between. In an ideal world that player would bring experience, toughness and solidify the backend of their defence. He would be able to make an impact on the game without having plays run for him, allowing him to co-exist with the aforementioned Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas. He would stretch the floor, thus giving those guys space to operate. He would possess the strong character and leadership qualities necessary to fit in off the court as much as he would on it. Ibaka checks all of those boxes and now, almost eight months after Ujiri declined to overpay, he comes to Toronto at a fraction of that initial cost.
“Trades are hard to do,” Ujiri said shortly after the deal was made official on Tuesday evening. “Here’s a guy that we’ve always had an eye on but obviously other teams do too and Orlando had him for a while. 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 that was a missing link on our team. Patrick [Patterson] has done a great job but I think we needed a couple 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.”
He will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, the biggest reason Orlando was forced to sell him off at a discounted rate, but the early indication is Toronto intends to try and re-sign him this summer. Ibaka, a native of the Republic of Congo, and Ujiri have a long-standing friendship from their time working together at Basketball Without Borders camps. The Raptors have a working relationship with his agent, Andy Miller, who also represents Lowry.
Ujiri is a smooth operator. Cautious, yes, but he’s not afraid to take a calculated risk. He’s opportunistic and knows the value of making the right trade at the right time, he’s seen what that can do to a team in peril. He doesn’t take a lot of swings, but when he does he’s aiming for the fences. Early in his time with Denver he was able to turn a disgruntled Carmelo Anthony into a treasure trove of assets. His first move in Toronto, stealing a first-round pick from the Knicks for the ghost of Andrea Bargnani, was a minor miracle. However, the deal he’s best known for came over four years ago when he sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento, even though it didn’t necessarily have the impact he intended at the time. For whatever reason, the trade brought that Raptors team together in way no one could have predicted. It sparked them, gave them purpose and turned out to be the first domino in the franchise’s unlikely string of success.
Outside of Paul Millsap – who is four years older and would have been more expensive, if he was even available at all – it’s hard to envision a better fit for this Raptors team. Ibaka was averaging a career-best 15.1 points with Orlando in this, his eighth NBA season. He’s extended his range to the point where he’s become one of the league’s premier stretch bigs, hitting 1.5 three-pointers per game and shooting them at an impressive 39 per cent clip. Although his athleticism has begun to dissipate some with age, he’s still one of the better shot blockers at his position. In terms of experience, he’s played in 89 post-season games with OKC, 28 more than anyone else on the Raptors.
However, more than anything else, it’s what this trade represents, the message it sends to Toronto’s coaches, players and fans that should have them all excited for the future. They’re all in now. If there was ever any doubt regarding the organization’s direction, its goal and its expectations, that’s certainly been cleared up. They want to win, they expect to win.
Mostly, Ujiri had been quiet since the Gay deal, at least on the trade front. He’s sat back, observed and evaluated as the players determined their fate. He’s made moves when necessary (acquiring Lou Williams, Lucas Nogueira and Powell, for instance) and rewarded those who have delivered for him (Lowry, DeRozan and Casey). But, perhaps for the first time since setting them on this path in December of 2013, Ujiri truly put his stamp on the Raptors with the trade for Ibaka.
“With these things you never know where it fits on paper, that’s why you think about it a lot,” Ujiri said. “I think the basics are there for him. We’re coming off a good year, I think we’ve had a bad stretch. But I feel with this kind of a player, it would just fill a hole, a gap that we’ve been missing. Hopefully this gives us that jump we need, to have a power forward of this caliber.”
He won’t solve all their problems, evident in yet another uninspired performance Tuesday night when they suffered their 11th loss in 15 games at the hands of the Chicago Bulls. In addition to simply making them a better team, the hope is that Ibaka can help give the Raptors the boost they desperately need right now.