Saturday was a bittersweet day for the Toronto Raptors and their fans. The day started off with great news that Fred Vanvleet has resigned for four years. Vanvleet was deemed ‘likely’ to return with the Raptors – barring a shocking offer from a team like the New York Knicks. The 85 million dollar contract was fair value for both sides, and things were well. However, the day ended with some major disappointment. Serge Ibaka, another player that fans and media believed was likely to return, signed a two-year contract with the Los Angeles Clippers. This was especially shocking because the contract was only valued at 19 million dollars. The Raptors were rumoured to be offering a similar number to Ibaka for just one season. Essentially, one of the most beloved Raptors of all-time took a pay cut to join Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers. That stings a bit.
Ibaka had one of the best seasons of his entire career last year. He averaged a career-high 15.4 points, 8.2 rebounds in just 27 minutes per game. His three-point percentage was at 38.5% on the season, while shooting 3.3 attempts per game. Furthermore, his leadership (both on and off the court) was a perfect compliment to the Raptors culture. There was plenty to appreciate from Ibaka, and he will be missed.
Despite this, there is no reason for the Raptors to change their goals for this season and beyond. While they have a glaring hole in the centre position, they still have plenty of ways to go from here. Of course, free agents such as Harry Giles, Aaron Baynes, Marc Gasol, and others are options – but let’s not discount the creativity of Masai Ujuri and Bobby Webster. If any management team has the ability to find quality replacements, it’s these guys.
After resigning Vanvleet, they could look to trade Norman Powell. Of course, Powell has a great deal of value to the team and would be missed as well as Ibaka. Powell has a player option at the end of this season, and will likely opt-out of his 10.5 million after seeing what the free agents were paid these past few days. It is unclear if he is a part of the future plans of the organization and now could be the time to cash out on him at a peak value. A number of teams would be interested in adding Norm.
A player like Powell, or any other package that the Raptors can assemble, could be used to target at minimum a 20-something year old centre with upside potential. Let’s remember, Nick Nurse and the rest of the Raptors staff are more than capable of grooming talent. This could be as easy as signing Harry Giles, but could be done via trade. The Raptors have surely done their homework and have the ability to find hidden gems.
Ibaka, and Gasol, were never a part of the long term plans for the Raptors. If Ibaka was to be re-signed, it would have been just for this season. I can’t imagine that the Raptors would have failed to offer Ibaka a one-year 20-25 million dollar contract if they didn’t have contingency plans. There is a chance that Ibaka doesn’t care about the money, but we know that he loved playing for the Raptors. He would not leave them if they made an offer of this magnitude.
As for this season, losing Ibaka may not be detrimental to the Raptors staying competitive. Fred Vanvleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Matt Thomas, all figure to get more looks on offense this season. These players are still improving, and can easily make up for some of Ibaka’s offensive importance to the Raptors. It will come in a different way than Ibaka, but Nick Nurse is very adaptable and can change his playbook.
Defensively, Ibaka was not amazing last year. He had a 0.0 Defensive Box Plus/Minus which signals league average. Among five-man lineups that Ibaka played at least 100 minutes with, Ibaka was only net positive per 100 possessions with one of them (Lowry, Powell, Anunoby and Siakam). Furthermore, in his 10 most played-with lineups, only two of them generated a positive Defensive Rebound Percentage (via Basketball Reference). The numbers were significantly better with Gasol on the floor. Ibaka’s all-defense game from his early 20’s is definitely a thing of the past.
The most likely route for the Toronto Raptors center position is to acquire one stable veteren (i.e Marc Gasol) and a young backup with more upside. This is an opportunity for the Raptors to develop a player in their system to complement the young core of Vanvleet, Siakam, Anunoby, and whoever else they plan to build around. They still have Chris Boucher, and plenty of small ball lineups including both Siakam and OG playing center minutes if injuries pile up. Dewan Hernandez will get some looks too.
Due to this, it is very feasible that the Raptors can find an adequate replacement for Ibaka. The rest of the core must continue to progress on offence. Then, they can find a capable defensive young center and team will produce similar results. They will miss Ibaka’s leadership, but this could be an opportunity to find the centre of the future for the Raptors. As much as Ibaka is loved, he was not the long term solution. The Raptors are not in win-now mode – but with great coaching, team-defence, and savvy management, the team will most likely remain competitive this season. It isn’t the end of the world for the Raptors.