Masai Ujiri is making his move.
The Toronto Raptors have agreed to send Terrence Ross and the lower of their 2017 first-round picks to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Serge Ibaka, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical. (The team has since announced the trade.)
This is, of course, enormous news. Ibaka immediately fills a hole the Raptors have been trying to fill since Chris Bosh left, with the starting power forward position a constant pain in their side. Patrick Patterson’s emergence as a starting-caliber four has been fun to watch, but the acquisition of Ibaka makes the position’s depth chart strong and unquestionable, and Patterson can return to his super-sub sixth-man role that he’s thrived in over the last few seasons. Ibaka can also spend minutes at the center position to provide depth behind Jonas Valanciunas and Lucas Nogueira, and lineups with a Patterson-Ibaka frontcourt could be deadly at both ends of the floor against certain matchups.
From a skill perspective, Ibaka brings most of what the Raptors have been looking for in a third piece. While his numbers have plateaued some over the last few years and his defense no longer appears elite, qualitatively or quantitatively, Ibaka is an agile, rangey, switch-able defender who can provide additional rim-protection and isn’t a negative on the boards when at power forward. At the offensive end, he has enough of a post and face-up game for the Raptors to go to him there once in a while, but the biggest thing he brings at that spot might be his shooting – he’s a career 36.5-percent 3-point shooter and has knocked down 38.8 percent of a high volume of looks so far this season, a good portion of them from above the break. He’s also a solid offensive rebounder, though he’s declined in that regard and the Raptors probably won’t ask him for much of that when he’s at the power forward position.
Ibaka is a fairly seamless fit on both ends of the floor, and he’ll act as a nice third option and safety valve for the team’s stars as well as a versatile piece that should let them try some different things on the defensive end. Toronto doesn’t exactly want for offense outside of the last few minutes of the last few games, and the defensive addition is a larger, more important gain. That’s long been their weakest area, and they’ve not fortified the four and five at that end of the floor. This team is now more capable of defending elite bigs and switching across more positions, and Dwane Casey will have a few more options down the stretch of games. He also brings a wealth of playoff experience, which can’t hurt.
Looking ahead further, the Ibaka acquisition is somewhat less obvious of a slam dunk. A 27-year-old who has shown some modest signs of decline, Ibaka stands to command a large salary in free agency this summer. The Raptors will be facing a luxury tax crunch so long as Kyle Lowry sticks around, and they’ll have to be careful just how much they commit to Ibaka long-term. Shedding Ross’ salary helps in that regard, but retaining Ibaka and Lowry would likely mean the end of Patterson and perhaps one other rotation piece this summer, too. The team is confident they’ll be able to re-sign Ibaka, who likes the city and has a relationship with Ujiri, but they’re going to be in a complex situation in terms of salary commitment – You can’t max out everyone, and even a push back to the Eastern Conference Finals would result in the Raptors having to negotiate hard and make some difficult financial decisions.
Still, Ibaka holding an expiring deal gives the Raptors some flexibility in the summer, and the nuclear option to blow things up if the acquisition doesn’t work out will remain in tact. And if it does work out, well, there was just no means of adding a player of Ibaka’s talent level in the offseason, anyway. There was no path to cap space, sign-and-trades could be rare under the latest collective bargaining agreements, and the Raptors’ young assets get older and less shiny by the day. By acting here and acquiring Ibaka’s Bird rights, the Raptors have put themselves in a better position to compete while the Lowry-DeMar DeRozan window is firmly open, even if it does mean trying to bite at the heels of LeBron James a while longer. And again, they’re better today, full stop.
The Raptors have been interested in Ibaka dating back to this offseason, when the Oklahoma City Thunder were requesting a king’s ransom in the form of Cory Joseph, Patterson, Norman Powell, and the No. 9 pick. The Thunder instead dealt him to Orlando for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the No. 11 pick, but the fit with the Magic and the threat of Ibaka’s impending unrestricted free agency led Magic general manager Rob Hennigan to explore options to not only recoup some assets, but build the team for a little further down the line.
That Ujiri and Jeff Weltman were able to swoop in and get Ibaka for a small fraction of the offseason cost is a nice piece of business, even if the 55 games without Ibaka would have been a little better with him. That the Raptors jumped here, before the All-Star break, with the team struggling and its stars calling for help, is nice timing, too. The Magic were reportedly hoping to wait until closer to the Feb. 23 deadline to make an actual deal while waiting for the price to come to where they liked it, but the Raptors clearly made a push for action earlier, and the timing really couldn’t be better. It sounds like the market for Ibaka was fairly cool, too, and Ujiri and company were smart to just come correct with an offer rather than quibbling at the margins of the price and risking losing out over the next 10 days.
Ibaka comes with a cost, of course. The lesser of two first-round picks in a deep draft is a nice trade chip, but with the amount of youth and depth the Raptors already have – as well as the other pick, likely to be in the mid-20s – it’s a pretty easy asset to let go of. Toronto will keep whichever pick is higher (“better”) between theirs and the Clippers’, meaning they retain the better of the two assets.
Ross is a much tougher pill to swallow, as he remains a productive bench piece on a very affordable deal with two more years left on it beyond this season. It’s easy to see why the Magic would want him in the return given their dearth of shooting and creation from the wings, and while Ross sometimes got a worse wrap from Raptors fans than his play would warrant, he’s a nice return if the Magic accepted that they weren’t getting anything close to what they gave up for Ibaka in return. Hennigan has also long been a Ross fan, and Ross stands to be given even more opportunity to grow in Orlando. Ross has been a member of the team’s core for years, ranks third in 3-pointers made, won a pair of dunk contests, and leaves us with the memory of his 51-point game.
More importantly for the Raptors, Ross leaves a pretty substantial hole in terms of shooting, and Ross is their best non-Kyle Lowry marksman and their most reliable second-unit scorer. The Raptors don’t necessarily have the shooting to replace him, but they do have a rotation-ready wing in the form of Norman Powell who has steadily made a case for greater playing time. With multiple point guards capable of handling minutes and Dwane Casey’s willingness to play two at a time, plus the continued emergence of Powell, the Raptors probably won’t hurt too much for depth on the wing. Powell has earned a bigger opportunity, and it’s his play that likely made the Raptors finally willing to part with Ross. Powell’s not the shooter Ross is, but he’s a better attacker and a more consistent defender.
It’s possible, too, that the Raptors aren’t done making moves yet. They still own their full contingent of draft picks moving forward (they owned an additional first from the Los Angeles Clippers, via the Milwaukee Bucks from the Powell trade), and they have the salary of Jared Sullinger they could pair with a pick or prospect in order to add some shooting, and perhaps size, back to the wings. Even if they don’t make another move, the Raptors have made a heavy splash here, and they’ve improved their talent base and roster balance without sacrificing too much in terms of near-term production. Ibaka is a better, more important player than Ross to this team, and the Raptors will figure out the requisite trickle-down effects as necessary.
This puts the team back in a position of stability to push for the second seed in the Eastern Conference, too. Or at least, it will once Ibaka has adjusted and been acclimated. That might not be immediate – it’s unclear if Ibaka will pass physicals quickly enough to play Wednesday, but it’s possible (Tuesday is almost certainly out of the question) – and the Raptors may have dug themselves too deep a hole to fight for a higher standing in the regular season. The news that Kevin Love will miss six weeks after a knee scope probably doesn’t weaken the Cleveland Cavaliers enough for the Raptors to make a push for the top spot, but if Boston falters, Toronto might be able to fight their way back to their prior perch.
Even if they don’t, Ibaka pushes the Raptors floor higher and – more importantly – their ceiling higher. It’s easy to lose sight of given their recent play, but the Raptors were once presumed the biggest threat to challenge Cleveland, and they may once again be the best challenger on paper. They’ll need to see how everything fits and hope, obviously, that their recent malaise turns around. Ibaka should help in that regard, as should the boost of adding a third major piece.
The Raptors are better today than they were yesterday. They made their move. They’ve bucked inaction to make a push. They’ve gotten their stars help. Today is a good day.