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Pre-Deadline Mailbag: A lot of Ibaka, plenty of other trade talk, Wrestlemania, and more

Three days in a row off for the Toronto Raptors means it’s time for another #RRMailbag. (They take a lot of time to put together, so I need the extra day turnaround time.) Or something. You can find all of the previous editions here, though I don’t know why you’d bother. You’ll probably get another pre-deadline one during the All-Star break, too.

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Alright, let’s get this money.

Sorry, just setting the tone for what’s to come.

Serge projector (no Ibakaing out now)

Before answering the proper question, I’d like to just iterate that I don’t believe Paul Millsap is fully off the market. Yes, the Hawks are 31-23, fifth in the East, and mostly trending upward. They’re also in a market where they’ve been gun-shy about looking like they’re rebuilding in the past, and dealing Millsap would at least signal a step back. It’s why I was never all that confident a deal would get done, because the asking price is going to have to really make sense for them. But if the offer is right? It’s a 32-year-old impending unrestricted free agent who doesn’t fit the rest of the team’s timeline and who likely won’t see them past the second round, anyway. You could convince the Hawks to reconsider. More of my Millsap thoughts are here and here.

As for Serge Ibaka, I wrote a fair amount about it here. Yes, the Raptors should be making calls on Ibaka. I don’t think he closes the gap with Cleveland in a meaningful way, but he does make it much more likely that the Raptors meet Cleveland in the Easter Conference Finals rather than bowing out before that point (or drawing a 4-5 seed and seeing the Cavaliers in the second round). Ibaka is also 27 and a pending free agent, and Toronto would seem to be a good longer-term fit for him, at least as much as a city can without knowing the player personally – there’s a Masai Ujiri connection, a great city, a franchise moving in the right direction, and two stars to allow Ibaka to once again thrive in the No. 3 role.

There would be tax complications that would likely see Toronto have to lose a piece to retain him (counter: the team has no means of acquiring a player anything close to this good in free agency), and he’s going to cost you at least two assets on the trade market. I suggested in that write-up that Orlando would probably ask for one of Terrence Ross/Cory Joseph, one of Jakob Poeltl/Pascal Siakam, and one of the 2017 first-round picks (you’d hope to get him for just two of those pieces, but Rob Hennigan is likely trying to recoup a fair amount of the value he surrendered for Ibaka in the first place. But it sounds more and more likely that Ibaka is the best piece available on the trade market, he’s a good on-court fit at both ends with what the Raptors are trying to do, and they’ve long needed an upgrade in the frontcourt to help solidify themselves as Cleveland’s biggest threat.

You have to give something up to get something, and smart teams will see Norman Powell as a major asset. I’m not positive the Magic fall into that group given their desperate need for shooting on the wings, and Powell’s tiny salary makes the math a lot tougher than Ross does. Because you’d have to pair Powell with either Joseph or two other pieces to make the salary matching work, a deal suddenly becomes a lot more complex than just swapping out Ross for Powell. In theory, Powell is not untouchable, but I struggle to find a deal for Ibaka that would make a great deal of sense both ways unless Orlando is only really after Powell and one of the prospects (something like Powell, Jared Sullinger, and Poeltl works).

I answered the first part above. I’d go as high as three assets: One of Ross/Joseph, one of Poeltl/Siakam, and one of the 2017 first-round picks. And I’d be hoping to get away with just two of those pieces. There are other ways to construct a deal, though, and I’d be fine giving up multiple picks if it meant being able to slide Sullinger’s salary in place of Ross/Joseph.

I don’t think you’re going to find a deal involving DeMarre Carroll, though. Given the injury track record and current performance, you’d probably have to pay a team in picks just to take Carroll into cap space right now, let alone to get Ibaka back in a deal, too. This isn’t meant as a dig on Carroll, who is trying, trending in the right direction over the longview of the season, and who, when playing well, brings some important things to the table that no other Raptor player brings. It’s a contract matter, and the fact that Carroll matters more to Toronto than he would to another team – yes, he’s blocking Powell some and hasn’t been at his best, but what he brings does less for a team further away from contention, and his salary would be tough to swallow when trying to rebuild.

There aren’t many teams I see willing to take on Carroll unless a deal gets very large. And that’s fine. It’s a bit of a sunk cost at this point. I understand the frustration of fans, too, but a suggestion: Accept the contract as one that will likely end up looking bad at its conclusion, and focus on what Carroll can bring. The team’s being patient with his role for a reason, and if he’s struggling come the playoffs, Powell will eat into his minutes more significantly.

If the Raptors wind up sending out Joseph in a larger package for Ibaka, C.J. Watson wouldn’t be the worst piece to bring back (nor would Jodie Meeks). The Raptors aren’t wanting for guard depth even if they send Joseph out, but in a multi-player deal, it doesn’t hurt to get back an experienced piece who can really shoot the ball (even with back-to-back shaky seasons from outside, Watson is a 37.6-percent career 3-point shooter). The complicating factor here is that one of the biggest benefits of an Ibaka deal is that he doesn’t make a lot, so salary matching is easy – throw in Watson, or Meeks, or whoever, and the Raptors have to send out more and more. An Ibaka deal makes the most sense to me as a smaller one.

If the team is going to acquire Ibaka, re-signing him this summer would absolutely be part of the plan. Ditto for Millsap. They’re not selling off future pieces just for the right to lose in a tighter series to the Cavaliers, and so acquiring the Bird rights to Ibaka is a big part of the draw here. The deal wouldn’t be a rental in the traditional sense.

The Raptors are going to face a tough salary crunch with or without Ibaka, though, and keeping him would likely mean that Patrick Patterson is done with the team this offseason. Barring a tear-down or some major offseason salary dumping (or, and I don’t even want to mention it, the loss of Kyle Lowry), the Raptors probably figure to be a tax team next year. They’re willing to do that, but don’t be surprised if keeping Ibaka (or even just keeping Lowry and Patterson, depending on the market) requires some maneuvering in the offseason. Masai Ujiri has the green light to go into the tax, but they’re not going to amass a Cleveland-sized tax bill unless something changes where they’re suddenly a legitimate title contender.

(More of) The usual trade talk

This is kind of a tough question to answer, because as with any deal or trade season in general, it requires more than just the Raptors to be willing to make a deal. You need the right players to hit the market. You need a team to be a trade fit. You need another team to not swoop in and overpay for the same piece. Considering there are maybe 25 teams who, at present, can talk themselves into playoff contention, it stands to be a seller’s market, except those sellers don’t have a lot of pieces to offer.

So on the one hand, no, the Raptors can’t really afford to sit back. They’re not as good as they’d like to be, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan need help, the window isn’t exceptionally wide open given the age of their two stars, and the threat of Lowry leaving this summer becomes far more obvious if the Raptors bow out in the first round of the playoffs again. They’ve built a ton of great momentum as a franchise over the last few years, and anything less than at least one playoff series win would be a fairly significant step back, perhaps giving the impression the unprecedented success they’ve achieved was a bit of a fluke, or came with the fortune of good timing. The Raptors need another strong performance this year, not just to help retain Lowry and insure the near-term health of the organization, but to make sure the important progress they’ve made so far isn’t undone. A deal would help.

On the other, though, you have to be realistic about the market, so it’s not reasonable to take a trade-or-bust mentality. For as much as Toronto needs to do well now, they also can’t sacrifice the health of the franchise moving forward just to lose to Cleveland by a little bit less in May. Prospects are food stamps in baseball, but in basketball, with limited rosters and a salary cap, they’re also a source of cheap labor and upside, something that’s hard to come by if you sell the farm and become a tax team. You know how top-heavy teams stay good? They have productive, inexpensive players at the end of the roster.

It’s a tough balance to strike, where the Raptors absolutely do need a trade, but because there’s no player that’s going to push them over the top available, they also can’t just significantly overpay for a marginal move. Ask Orlando how that worked out. I wrote about this conundrum a bit more here.

We’ve seen the ceiling of this team. It’s a gritty two-way outfit that can defend capably and score as well as anybody. Led by two All-Stars flanked by players excelling in smaller roles, they can patch together enough defensively to let their offense carry them. At their best, they can probably be a shade better than the team that took Cleveland to six games last year in the Eastern Conference Finals. That level of play still exists within this group, even if it’s been a while since it’s presented itself.

The floor, however, is what’s more concerning. The floor isn’t quite as low as the 2014-15 team everyone likes to compare this one too – the stars are better, the roster deeper, the individual defenders more capable – but it’s as low as the same outcome, a first-round playoff exit. The East has improved enough to where Toronto isn’t a certainty to advance, especially if they wind up in the 3-5 range in the standings. We’ve seen over the last six weeks that the floor is a team that struggles defensively, can’t get contributions outside of their top two players, and relies to heavily on just a few pieces to win games.

If they make a deal, it’s probably about the floor as much as the ceiling. Maybe Ibaka is a ceiling play, but given the gap between Toronto and Cleveland, any move less splashy than that would be aimed at ensuring the bottom doesn’t fall out.

Now, will they? It always makes more sense to bet “no” on a trade.

I’d prefer a combo-big to a combo-forward. The Raptors already have a combo-forward in Carroll and the additional guards and wings to make such a lineup work, and while they’re often much too small across the floor with those looks, they’re at least moderately effective. Getting another combo-forward is nice Carroll insurance, but it wouldn’t change those looks from being too small, and it would serve to further cloud the path to playing time for Powell, something a lot of people are (understandably) concerned about.

The frontcourt rotation of Patterson-Valanciunas-Nogueira perhaps doesn’t need fortifying when you factor in a tightened playoff rotation and the ability to go small, but given the presence of Ross and Powell off the bench on the wing, it would seem a more reasonable position to attack. Sullinger, as currently constructed and the rookies would have little business playing in a playoff series, and Toronto could probably use some insurance up front in the event they meet an opponent they can’t permanently downsize against.

To be clear, though, a move that makes them better makes them better. If a four-five isn’t there, or a three-four makes more sense given the asking prices, you get the best pieces possible and figure out the fit as you go along.

At last I heard, the Suns were trying to get a first-round pick for P.J. Tucker, a strong, physical wing who can play some small four and would add some necessary toughness to Toronto’s bench. Sullinger makes sense from strictly a math perspective, but Phoenix likes having veterans around as their young players learn and grow, so it’s unclear how open they may be to letting Tucker go for a modest return. My guess: You’d have to part with either one of the young bigs, Delon Wright, or a first-round pick to get him. I don’t think salary ballast and the No. 55 pick is getting it done.

There’s almost no scenario in which the Raptors would be able to clear cap room to sign Ibaka in this scenario. Even without adding Chandler (who has about $12 million on his deal next year), the Raptors are in a cap situation where it’s almost impossible to carve out space for a free agent.

Now, if they dealt for Ibaka (I’m a little confused at the wording of the question, my apologies) and used their Bird rights to re-sign him, they don’t need to clear cap space to do so. Deals of, say, Ross for Chandler and Joseph+Poeltl+pick for Ibaka (just random examples, not saying they’re deals that would work) neutralizes some of the salary increase moving forward, but even then, the Raptors would be up against a serious luxury tax bill and waiving goodbye to Patrick Patterson. Even if Patterson walked and Ibaka/Lowry only made a combined $50M next season (unlikely), the tax bill would be pushing $10M, even before factoring in any other rookies or free agents.

In other words, it’s all absolutely possible, but their salary situation is almost surely going to require some tough decisions and some juggling next summer, no matter what they do.

It’s possible, depending on your goals for these deals. Those guys don’t life the ceiling any higher, but both are tough, defensive-minded players who can help lift the floor and maybe help right the ship from a defensive attitude perspective. The issue I’d see with those pair of acquisitions is that you’d suddenly be significantly older – the Bulls would probably want Ross, the Nuggets Joseph, both may want prospects, and Gibson is about to enter free agency at an age where paying him long-term is at least a difficult question. Those two players, assuming Ross went out in one of the deals, would also leave the Raptors desperately light on shooting.

It would depend, obviously, on the asking prices. I like both players, but even in tandem they don’t make the Raptors a threat to Cleveland, so balancing the now with the next two-to-three years would be important.

My ranking: Powell, Wright, Poeltl, Siakam, VanVleet, Caboclo.

You can quibble with this, of course. It’s based on a few different things, and it’s always hard to marry upside and floor. For example, I think VanVleet is absolutely an NBA rotation player, but I’m not sure he’s ever a starter, whereas Siakam has immense defensive potential but also a higher likelihood of not turning out a steady, productive player. I’m certain Wright is an NBA backup right now and that Poeltl will be, at worst, a capable backup center, but Wright’s game has a bit more to it in terms of what he could become.

Tiering them might make more sense: Powell, Wright/Poeltl, Siakam/VanVleet, Caboclo.

Raptors miscellaneous

I wouldn’t say the defense isn’t good. I mean, it’s not, but it can be. Despite all of their struggles, the Raptors grade out as almost exactly league average on that end of the floor so far, and they can absolutely play better than they’ve shown when Patterson returns, if Joseph rediscovers his form, and if guys lock in when the postseason draws near. But yeah, I had them down to finish in the 12-15 range on defense before the year (they’re currently 17th), and that’s fine but not good enough to legitimately contend.

I don’t think DeRozan’s comments were anything to make a big deal out of, though. DeRozan’s grown to the point where he just keeps it real 100 percent of the time in interviews, and he’s not going to piss down your back and then tell you it’s raining. He knows the team is struggling and doesn’t have it on the defensive end right now. Sure, it’s a little odd to hear him say help would be welcome rather than rallying up the team with a “we’ve got what we need in house” comment, but he’s a) just being honest, and b) being a leader by letting the team know how they’ve been playing isn’t good enough.

It’s definitely looked like a bigger hole because of Patterson’s absence. He’s an important piece to the starting lineup and bench-heavy units, and he’s their best team defender and defensive communicator. His absence has had a trickle-down effect in the rotation, too, and it’s forced Dwane Casey to go deeper into the bench, experiment, and use guys in spots they’re not ready for. The hope is that, like last year with Carroll’s absence, the team winds up better for it in the long-run, but it’s a little concerning that a role player who barely touches the ball on offense has this big an impact on a team that fancies itself a threat. No disrespect to Patterson, whose game I’m a huge fan of, but he shouldn’t be the swing factor between conference finalist and first-round fodder, the two extremes the team has played to with and without him (there is, admittedly, a lot else going on, too).

Sullinger’s injury, though, doesn’t require qualification. Because while the team will get Patterson back, there’s no assurance Sullinger’s going to be able to play his way into what he was supposed to be. Nogueira has eaten into his role as a sometimes-backup center, Patterson has established he should start, and Sullinger, even if at his best, would be fighting to carve out a spot in the rotation. The power forward spot, then, remains a hole because it’s still not clear what and when Sullinger will provide – the Raptors can’t go into the deadline assuming Sullinger is their de facto acquisition.

If the latter were true and players were ignoring him, it would mean he’s doing a poor job, yes. But there’s a lot more nuance to the situation than that, namely that Casey empowers Lowry and DeRozan to read defenses and make calls on the fly, and that sometimes, your best intentions just don’t turn out.

There’s also a bit of a misnomer about Casey’s late-game playcalling: While it’s certainly redundant and relies heavily on one-on-one attacking, the Raptors run actions to get the best matchup possible, then attack it. That’s just how their built, and it puts a lot of onus on Lowry and DeRozan to score tough baskets against defenses that know where the Raptors are trying to attack. But DeRozan attacking Isaiah Thomas or Tyus Jones relentlessly, or Lowry hounding switches against a slow-footed big, those are good advantages to exploit. Still, this needs some cleaning up, and the Raptors have at times shown they can get more creative and create late-game looks for other players (my suspicion is that if they did so and a Joseph or Carroll missed a clean look, people would then rip Casey for not calling a play for one of his stars).

It probably remains Casey’s biggest weakness as a coach, his late-game execution. He is not a bad coach, though. Coaching is a 365-day job, and it’s unwise to evaluate someone’s performance on one element of that, even if it’s the most glaring and obvious (and to be clear, I was very critical of Casey after the Minnesota loss). He does more good than harm. Steering the team out of this skid will be a good test of that more macro-level stuff that’s harder to identify and quantify.

This has been a point of frustration for me for a little while now. The Raptors tweaked their system before last year to ask less hedging from Valanciunas, instead having him drop back more often. That included a more conservative approach to side pick-and-rolls. Personnel has changed some of the approach – Bismack Biyombo’s biggest strength was his versatility in this regard, and both Nogueira and Poeltl have strengths hedging in different parts of the floor – and for whatever reason, Casey’s also asked Valanciunas to high-wall the side pick-and-roll more often. (High-walling is what you see when Valanciunas essentially goes perpendicular to the sideline to impede a guard’s progress toward the baseline. It is also where, I think, like, 40 percent of Valanciunas’ fouls come from.)

The thing is, Valanciunas is a step slow and isn’t the swiftest at recovering back to his man in the middle of the floor, so not only does it require aggressive weak-side help to tag his man near the nail, there’s a chain reaction as Valanciunas tries to lumber back into position. It hasn’t been particularly effective, and while there’s an argument to be made for continuing to try it to see if the team will figure it out, they’re even using it against guards who can’t shoot now, which doesn’t make a ton of sense (you’re really afraid of Ricky Rubio pulling up if Valanciunas drops back?).

Whatever the reason behind it – likely experimenting because the defense has been bad and they need to try something – it’s probably something that would only be used as a matchup-specific look in the postseason. Or so I’m telling myself.

Absolutely they should. 100 times yes. Sadly, the Knicks don’t visit again this year.

https://twitter.com/TDotNorm/status/830080783763271687

I miss him in the locker room and as a quote, that’s for sure. I’m sure the team misses a bit of that leadership, too.

As for Scola himself, well, by the end of last year he wasn’t playing particularly well, and at 36 years old, playing the mentor role for a rebuilding team is probably a nice fit. Brooklyn paid him a little more than his likely market value, too, and he might even have another season in him with this same role, given how beloved he is. Luis Scola forever.

It seems like we might be getting close. Wright’s now had five D-League games, and it looks like the rust is off. What’s more, it’s VanVleet, not Wright, down with the 905 for tonight’s game. The initial plan when Wright got healthy was for the two young guards to trade stints in the D-League back and forth, and while VanVleet has shown himself absolutely capable of handling NBA minutes, the team probably wants to see what Wright has, too. Minutes will still be hard to come by unless Lowry or Joseph get a night off, but it seems like he’s at least temporarily in the PG3 slot.

This question is probably best revisited in two weeks when we see if the Raptors have done anything at the deadline.

His physical and psychological development have been great. He’s not nearly as big as he’ll ultimately need to be, but he no longer looks like a kid, and he’s held up to playing power forward for the bulk of his minutes with the 905. Head coach Jerry Stackhouse seems to have helped with the mental side, too, as Caboclo is wilting from competition far less frequently, bouncing back when he has poor stretches, and showing some nice fire on the defensive end. These are *expected* developments, but it’s still a positive that they’re happening.

On the court, Caboclo’s taken immense strides as a defender. His awareness of team defensive concepts has improved, he’s using his length better in man situations, he’s become much smarter in help-and-recover, and he’s more keenly aware of how to use his length beyond just flailing at shooters. He’s really coming along on that end. I wish I could say the same for his offense. Even with an extra year of experience and a smaller role, his efficiency is down, as are his raw numbers. He’s plateaued there, and while it’s concerning (especially the dip in 3-point percentage), the steps on defense outweigh the offensive stagnation, I think.

He’s still extremely young by NBA standards and has a season-and-a-half before the experiment is expected to show returns. I’m not convinced he’ll be a useful NBA piece yet, but I absolutely see why the team has kept their faith in that process.

I don’t really have a good answer for you, as I haven’t been to a game as a fan in a few years now. I’m not sure what kind of stuff there is before games. I would say, though, that making sure you’re in a little before game time is probably a smart move, as watching warmups usually gets you a few fun dunks (I used to always go early just to catch the nightly Jose Calderon warmups dunk to make sure he could still do it). Powell and Ross, in particular, usually throw down some ridiculous stuff, and you can probably get down pretty close until it starts to fill up.

Last year, Valanciunas promised me he’d hit a three at some point this year. I asked him about it the other week and he said “we still have half a season, right?” So it’s coming. Or a three is coming, anyway. He’s capable of hitting them, but he’s never going to be a “stretch” five in the sense that the Raptors ask him to shoot many and defenses react to it. It’ll probably only ever be a show-me weapon he can unleash as the trailer in transition or if an action stalls out late in the clock.

NBA miscellaneous

Hooked On A Feeling. The Jays have to bury that song.

I’d coach one of the celebrity teams this year. The East side has White Chocolate, Oscat Schmidt, and reigning MVP Win Butler, plus I’d have Kyle Lowry on my coaching staff and would get to talk smack to Mark Cuban, Baron Davis, Draymond Green, and Master P on the other side. (I would have loved to coach against Drake last year. Can’t believe Kevin Hart got my spot.)

I think the new CBA probably slowed the market a bit. It came out early enough for teams to have plenty of time to digest the new rules, so I don’t think there’s necessarily an uncertainty aspect, but the new CBA has a few wrinkles that teams are probably still digesting and figuring out the best way to attack. The biggest thing it did was firmly take DeMarcus Cousins off of the market, and if he had been even remotely in play, that probably would have had trickle-down effects everywhere.

The bigger reason it’s so quiet is that everyone’s still in a playoff race. It’s one of the minor drawbacks of greater parity.

Non-basketball miscellaneous

This is a tough question, since I’m lucky enough to get to meet a lot of athletes as part of my job. Other than interviewing Steve Nash for the first time a few years back or talking beard care with Russell Martin at spring last year, there aren’t that many occasions where I still kind of geek out. It’s never going to happen, but I will say that if I had one interview request, it would be to talk wrestling with noted WWE fan Vince Carter.

I don’t think we’re going Randy Orton-John Cena. I think Bray Wyatt is going to win the Elimination Chamber, and then the Orton-Wyatt story they’ve been telling most of the last year will wind up being a major match. That slow-burn has been phenomenal, and it’s worth of a big spot on the card. Both guys have also shown they can step it up in a match they care about, especially a really physical one, so it should be fun. I wouldn’t be opposed to Luke Harper staying in the story and being thrown int he mix, either.

As for Brock Lesnar and Goldberg, meh. It’s not for me. I don’t think it needs the title to be important and I’d rather Kevin Owens-Chris Jericho feud over the belt, but I understand why Lesnar-Goldberg has appeal to casual fans and kids. Not everything on the card is there for everyone, so I’ve kind of just accepted it.

It would be immensely disappointing, yes. A.J. Styles has been their MVP and should have a match where he can go out and put on a show and culminate one of the best debut years in WWE history. I’m not sure exactly who or what that story is – Smackdown is a little thin on guys unless they called someone up or gave him Cena again – but Shane McMahon is ill-suited for anything other than a gimmick match/storyline at this point. I’m not sure what the answer is if they insist on getting Shane on the card, though, or who Styles would go with otherwise (Samoa Joe? Shinsuke Nakamura?).

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