With the Serge Ibaka trade, the Toronto Raptors look to surge into the playoffs.
Despite being one of the teams expected to challenge the Cavs in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors (32-24) have hit the skids as of late, sliding to a mediocre 11-14 start to 2017. After enjoying the second seed in the East for much of the early season, Toronto has begun to fade and Raptors’ GM Masai Ujiri decided a major move was necessary to rejuvenate the roster.
That move has come in the form of veteran big man Serge Ibaka, who was acquired on Feb. 14 for guard/forward Terrence Ross and a 2017 first round pick. The Raptors hope a roster shakeup can keep their team from getting complacent, and that Ibaka regains his Oklahoma City form to push the team into the same class as the Cavaliers.
In 2016-17, Serge Ibaka has been impressive, although his identity has slowly departed from his ‘Serge I-block-a’ days. In Orlando, he looked to become more of an offensive threat, averaging the most field goal attempts (12.6), the most three-point attempts (3.8), and tied his highest point average (15.1) in his career, all while shooting 48.8% from the field.
But, in an effort to improve his offensive output, he has sacrificed part of his game on the other end of the floor. Through 56 games, he is averaging near career lows in rebounding (6.8) and blocks (1.6). While he may not be the defensive force he was with OKC, he should provide a versatile two-way, floor-stretching presence for the Raptors.
Compared to the Raptors’ previous starting PF Patrick Patterson, Ibaka improves in almost every facet of the stat sheet. While Patterson has been serviceable this season (and will now slide onto the bench to become a solid backup for Ibaka), Ibaka is simply the more talented, skilled, and opportunistic player.
In roughly the same amount of minutes per game (both players hover around 30 minutes per), Ibaka posts more points (15.1 to 7.2), rebounds (6.8 to 5.4), and blocks (1.6 to 0.4), while shooting a higher percentage from the field. While one should expect Ibaka’s numbers to slip as he will now be on a better team with more offensive weapons than he was in Orlando, Ibaka will still be relied upon to be that ever important third option.
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After the deal with the Magic, Toronto looks to have one of the most fearsome, All-Star studded teams in the NBA. To put it boldly: a starting five of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas can compete with almost any team in the NBA.
While Toronto’s success is predicated on the output of their All-Star backcourt of Lowry and DeRozan, the Ibaka trade is encouraging for Raptor fans because it addresses some of their pressing deficiencies as a team; namely defense and rebounding. Even with his decreased defensive output so far this year, the Raptors hope to rediscover and maximize Ibaka’s defensive prowess.
Canada’s team boasts one of the most explosive offenses in the league, ranking fifth in the NBA, posting 108.8 points per contest. However, the squad is in the middle of the pack defensively (11th in the NBA and 20th in defensive efficiency), giving up 104.7 points per game, and in the league’s cellar in rebounding (23rd). While Ibaka is currently posting some of the lowest defensive stats of his career (much of that can be attributed to the Orlando system’s need for his offense), he is still averaging a positive defensive box plus/minus at 0.6, with a VORP of 1.1, higher than Patrick Patterson’s 0.8.
In his short tenure in Orlando, he ranked second on the team in defensive win shares with 1.9, and had the highest block percentage (4.3% of FG attempts against him) on the Magic roster. Toronto’s front office hopes that they can revive ‘defensive specialist’ Serge Ibaka, while also enjoying whatever points he can put up on the other end of the court.
Despite the move, some of the East’s elite teams still could prove a matchup problem for Toronto. They will still have to jump over the Boston Celtics, who are a very similar team to the Raptors; offensively focused (Boston ranks sixth in the league), poor rebounders (27th) and in the middle of the pack defensively (14th). The Celtics are a deep team, but the Ibaka deal was a major boon to Toronto’s depth. If he can prove to provide that extra rebounding and defensive effort, the Raptors should be favored in a playoff matchup.
Photo: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Of course, the big question is how they match up with the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers. This season, Cleveland has forged an offensive identity, ranking third in the league in points per game. But surprisingly, Toronto has actually given up fewer points per contest than the vaunted Cavalier defense.
One of the Cavs’ problems that LeBron James has been vocal about is their lack of depth, particularly playmakers, which could be problematic in the playoffs. Like Boston, depth is a strong point for Toronto. If Ibaka can contain Kevin Love (or if Love is injured), the Cavs could run into the same problems they did in their 2015 Finals loss.
I not mad or upset at management cause Griff and staff have done a great job, I just feel we still need to improve in order to repeat…— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 24, 2017
While there are a number of ‘what ifs’ and ‘best case scenarios’ here, all indications show that this move should be a win for the Toronto Raptors. There is a great deal of risk involved as Toronto gave up a pick in what looks to be an excellent draft to bring in Ibaka to accommodate the championship window of Lowry and DeRozan, but this is the textbook definition of a win-now move. All three players are on the right side of 30 (even if Lowry is exactly 30 years old), but the window is closing because Toronto may lose some of these pieces to free agency, as they did with Bismack Biyombo this past offseason. If they want Ibaka to be a piece of the future, they will have to pay him come next summer.
However, despite some small reservations, it is hard to deny that the Raptors had to make this trade. They have been trending in the wrong direction the last couple of months, and they addressed a number of trouble spots by bringing in Ibaka. If this move pans out, Toronto should regain its footing in the East and challenge the Cavs for the honor of playing (presumably) the Golden State Warriors in the Finals.
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