The Toronto Raptors have a long checklist to work through this summer. Among their most pressing items on the to-do list are to re-sign Fred VanVleet, to look for a strong scoring option to pair next to Pascal Siakam, to extend OG Anunoby’s contract before he hits restricted free agency, and of course, to figure out the situation at the centre position. With all three of Toronto’s traditional centres on the 2019-2020 roster hitting unrestricted free agency this summer, Raptors front office moguls Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have plenty of courses of action to choose from.
Marc Gasol – who’s days as a starting caliber centre have likely dwindled away – has indicated that he may be looking to finish his career playing overseas in Europe, according to Xavi Saiso Garcia of Radio Ser Catalunya. While Gasol was a pivotal piece for the Raptors in their championship run, he was a null offensively in their most recent postseason. Beyond his shooting struggles, he was also an ineffective defensive matchup against quicker centres in the pick and roll, which the Boston Celtics exquisitely exploited in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Though Gasol would be capable of continuing his NBA career if he chooses to do so, it may be in the Raptors’ best interest to move on from the 35-year-old Spaniard, unless he is willing to re-sign for cheap and play limited minutes off the bench.
On a more exciting, and far skinnier note, the Raptors also face a decision regarding their Canadian big man, Chris Boucher. While Boucher played an instrumental role in winning two of the most exciting games of the Raptors’ season against the Los Angeles Lakers in November, and then surmounting the Dallas Mavericks’ 30-point lead in December, he’s still not a staple piece in Toronto’s rotation, nor should he be. Despite bringing his infectious energy every time he steps on the floor, and being a positive contributor on both sides of the basketball, his size is a concern. Standing at 6’10 and weighing only 210 pounds, Boucher is about 40 pounds lighter than the average NBA centre, which doesn’t serve him well as a finisher inside, nor as a rebounder. He is often, and easily overpowered by other NBA centres, which makes him hard to play at all in particular matchups.
Though Boucher’s potential would be intriguing if he were able to get his weight up, he’s already 27-years-old, and is likely close to a fully-developed product. Because of his noticeable flaws, Boucher is not a player that the Raptors should feel comfortable with as their backup centre, however again, if he is willing to stay with his hometown team for a discounted price, Toronto should certainly bring him back for the hustle and continuity that he provides.
That leaves out the Congo’s finest, Serge Ibaka, who is easily the best of Toronto’s three free agent centres. Also coming for the unrestricted market, it remains to be seen how expensive teams are willing to spend to acquire Ibaka’s services. Despite being on the wrong side of 30, Serge has proven that he can still help a team win, and will be an upper-tier starting centre in the NBA for the next couple seasons. Both on the court, and off of it, Ibaka has embodied Toronto since being traded to the Raptors in 2016. Whether befriending Drake, eating locally at some of his favourite ethnic restaurants downtown, or hosting his own YouTube TV show at Yorkville’s Holt Renfrew, Serge is always repping the North, and he’s won the hearts of all Canadian sports fans in doing so.
It’s no secret that the Raptors would love to keep Ibaka, not only for his on-court play, but in hopes of assembling an all-African frontcourt to lure Giannis Antetokounmpo to the Raptors in 2021. The only predicament comes with what type of contract they’ll be able to offer him. Do Ujiri and Webster want to throw a big one-year deal at Ibaka so that the Raptors can save cap space for 2021, or act more traditionally by giving Ibaka a three-year contract in the range of $50M? Either route is understandable, however it will all boil down to how the Raptors want to manage their money, and what type of offers Ibaka is recieving from other teams.
Regardless of how the situations with Gasol, Boucher, and Ibaka play out, the Raptors will assuredly also take a glance at external free agents, or cheap trade targets. Among the most intriguing candidates is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Montrezl Harrell, who is also known by his nickname, Trez.
The Raptors reportedly have interest in signing Harrell when he hits the open market, according to Ross from Legion Hoops. Fair warning that this may not be the most credible source to take rumours from, however shortly after the report – and just days after the Los Angeles Clippers’ heartbreaking playoff elimination – Harrell also followed the Raptors on Instagram.
The 26-year-old centre is slightly undersized for his position, standing at only 6’10, however contrarily to Chris Boucher, he makes up for the lack of height with his excess of muscle. Trez is coming off the best season of his career, averaging 18.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.7 assists. While he remains an incapable three-point shooter, hitting only 10% of his looks from deep throughout his time in the NBA, he gets most of his points off cuts, rim runs in transition, and offensive rebounds.
Compared to Serge Ibaka – if Harrell were to be the replacement guy – the Raptors would be taking a step backwards in their defensive and spacing departments, but would be improving massively in the rebounding category, and would hope that Trez’s flaming energy could spread throughout the locker room to steepen other players’ career trajectory.
Ultimately, the marginal improvement that Toronto might make by signing Harrell and letting Ibaka walk may not be worth sacrificing the continuity of this current Raptors core, or getting rid of Serge’s championship pedigree. The contracts that each player is going to call for will be similar enough to each other that the Raptors would virtually be making an ‘either or’ decision between the two candidates. In such a situation, it would be improbable that Harrell ends up a Raptor.
Still, the rumours regarding Trez should be taken for face value. It’s understandable that he may be looking for a way out of the Clippers’ organization, who have struggled to make a Conference Finals appearance in their 50 years of existence. His tenacity and grittiness fit the Raptors culture perfectly, and while a below-average defender, his deficiencies are not due to a lack of effort. Whether his choice to follow the Raptors’ Instagram page was just to get an overreaction from fans, or if it was a genuine move to signal that he has every intention of coming North of the border remains unclear.
Ultimately, if Toronto can find a way to re-sign both Serge Ibaka, and fetch Montrezl Harrell, while maintaining enough cap space for a maximum level free agent in 2021, then they should absolutely go for it.