The Toronto Raptors were mightily struggling coming down the stretch toward the trade deadline and then…..
RELOAD! Let’s start out this article looking at the positives for the Toronto Raptors. And who knows? Perhaps the positives will far outgain the negative in the long-run.
The Raptors were struggling mightily coming down the stretch towards the trade deadline, losing more than they’ve won in their last 31 games (15-16). Their two All-Stars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan – well-earned All-Stars at that– had just gotten to the point where they all but asked, publicly, for their front office to bring in some help
They did so, despite considering this is virtually the same squad that reached the Eastern Conference Final last year and pushed the eventual champion, the Cleveland Cavaliers, to six games. However, there was no doubt the team was in a nosedive and things weren’t turning around, so Raptors’ GM Jeff Weltman and team president Masai Ujiri got to work.
Just as I was planning to write an article expressing that the Raptors needed to do something -– I was actually going to suggest they pull the trigger on a trade for DeMarcus Cousins (which would’ve given the Raptors a DeMar [DeRozan], DeMarre [Carroll], plus DeMarcus [Cousins]) -– they stunned the basketball world on Feb. 14 (Happy Valentines’ Day!!) by instead nabbing Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic.
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In hindsight, this move is probably better. First off, Ibaka is a defensive stalwart– he is a three-time NBA Defensive First Team selection and led the NBA in blocks twice in his career.
The Raptors struggle defensively at times, and have long been looking into finding a power forward who could be a rim protector and change opponents’ shots in the lane. Centre Jonas Valanciunas is a big man, yes, but help defence and blocking are not his strong suit – Serge “I-Block-a” addresses these needs.
Next, Cousins is an agitator. Usually this speaks of a player’s style of play, but not in this case.
He is a player with unlimited amounts of skill -– analysts call him top 10 in the NBA in terms of talent -– but he is highly volatile (Ibaka is not). Cousins gets the most technical fouls in the league and costs his team as well as helps.
Maybe most importantly for this season, Ibaka isn’t a ball-stopper. In his career, he takes less than 10 shots a game. This means that Lowry and DeRozan will still get their shots with no dismay from Ibaka.
He seemingly is a good soldier and is fine as long as the team wins (recall, he played third and fourth fiddle on Oklahoma City behind Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden and was never one to complain — and he’s also the only one to leave not by player’s choice). He just puts up his numbers, workman-like.
Cousins, on the other hand, is a ball-stopper. He does score lots (27.8 PPG) and is posting highs in assists (4.8) this season. But in Sacramento, he averaged 20 shots a game.
One argument for the Raptors standing pat was their team’s chemistry and 20.7 shots a game would inevitably disrupt this chemistry. And one can bet their life-savings that DeMarcus would make it known, loud and clear, if DeMarcus wasn’t getting enough shots… hence would be a distraction.
Also, a plus for Ibaka this season is playoff experience; 89 games of it. Ibaka has been to the Finals, when only one other Raptor has (Cory Joseph). That should help in June (Cousins has no playoff experience).
Most importantly, for the long term, is signing a (potential) contract this offseason. Both power forwards are free agents in the next two years.
Cousins is signed for this year and next, so true, the Raptors would’ve gotten this year and next… however, at $17 and $18 million dollars is steep (Ibaka is at $12, which sounds like a great deal comparatively). Ibaka is only guaranteed for this season though.
However, as per signing an extension. Hmmm. Seemingly, Ibaka is more of a lock to lockdown for an extension.
Cousins will definitely seek max money regardless of team success (Toronto has two max players in DeRozan and Lowry. Derozan proved his loyalty by inking with the Raps last offseason, while Lowry is an unrestricted free agent this summer). Ibaka proved loyal to the Thunder, signing a mostly reasonable four-year deal before being traded to Orlando (in OKC’s attempt to have enough money to re-sign Durant).
So will Lowry and Ibaka sign extensions with the Raptors? Lowry has always seemed happy in Toronto where his career has flourished, and his close relationship with DeRozan make it seem likely he will return (optimistically speaking).
Can the Raptors afford all three? It will be tough. But something tells me Ujiri would not have traded for Ibaka if he didn’t think the Raps had a good chance in re-signing him.
The connection between Ujiri and Ibaka is that they were both born in the continent of Africa. Whether this is coincidence or not, I don’t know, but I do think it gives the Raptors an edge in re-signing him.
So what did the Raptors have to give up in order to acquire Ibaka? Did they have to mortgage the farm like the Blue Jays apparently had to do two seasons ago when they traded for David Price? Well, actually, what do Sportsnet’s Tim and Sid sing? “I BELIEVE IN MASAI!”
Answer to what they gave up? Not a ton really. Wing-player Terrence Ross, who was a fan favourite for his highlight dunks (Twitter handle: T_DotFlight31), but he was also a fan annoyance for his reluctance to drive and instead jack up shot after shot from three-point range. He hit some (37 percent), but missed many more.
Also, the Raps had to include a second-round pick to send to Orlando. But truly, the Raptors hardly need picks. They’re pretty deep. However, the move left a bit of a void at the 3-guard behind Carroll.
Then, right at the Feb. 2 deadline, the Raptors acquired 3-guard P.J. Tucker from Phoenix. This is really a perfect add: a tough wing player who is known for his stout defense (he will be counted on with Carroll to guard LeBron James).
The asking price was rather steep however. Jared Sullinger, a big man who coming off injury didn’t get a real chance to recover and flourish as a Raptor, plus two second round draft picks.
I really think Sullinger has potential, but knowing he will also become a free agent at year’s end makes not waiting it out for him understandable. Plus, the Raptors had a log-jam at the 4/5 positions (Valanciunas, Ibaka, plus young players Lucas Nogueira, Jakob Poeltl, and Pascal Siakim), so Sully was expendable.
The draft picks aren’t concerning as I said before as the Raptors are a young team with their younger players under control.
The Raptors have been restocked by Weltman and Ujiri, hence RELOADED for a stretch drive. They appear to be all-in now with the pieces there to compete (hopefully this keeps Lowry and Ibaka interested for next year as well).
The Raps have plenty of time to turn things around before the playoffs hit. They’re just behind the Boston Celtics for the second-seed in the East, and are battling it out with the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks for third, fourth, and fifth.