The Toronto Raptors have re-signed Serge Ibaka to a three-year, $65-million contract, according to a report from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.
That’s a pretty reasonable price for Ibaka, right about in line with what the market had seemed to suggest over the past few days and a number that should be tolerable for the Raptors as they look to remain competitive in a shifting Eastern Conference landscape. It’s not a discount, to be sure, and it’s maybe a tad higher than the Raptors were maybe hoping when the market opened as it did. Still, $21-22-million annually, with only a three-year term, for a 27-year-old combo-big who can stretch the floor and play quality defense is a fair enough deal.
The Raptors have long sought a power forward like Ibaka, finally landing him a week ahead of the trade deadline in a deal that sent Terrence Ross and what became the No. 25 pick to Orlando. Ibaka was a nice fit down the stretch, shooting well from long-range to help a shooting-starved team space the floor with some floor inversion and as a pick-and-pop threat, and he helped push the defense to new heights out of the All-Star break. The infusion of Ibaka and P.J. Tucker kept the Raptors afloat at 14-7 while Kyle Lowry was injured and raised their defensive ceiling, and while the team ultimately didn’t fare any better agains the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs, Ibaka was instrumental against the Milwaukee Bucks in the series prior.
Re-signing Ibaka at market rate is something most assumed was in the cards when Masai Ujiri initially pulled the trigger on the trade. That was called into question a bit as the Raptors set out on an offseason of soul-searching to determine a direction. Here, the Raptors have re-committed to Ibaka being a part of the core alongside Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, a quality trio, albeit one with a definitive (and somewhat underwhelming) ceiling so long as the top of the league is constructed as it is currently.
There still isn’t word on the status of Lowry, but considering the fates of Lowry and Ibaka seemed tied and they share an agent, this would seem to suggest a Lowry deal could follow, too. It wouldn’t make a great deal of sense to bring Ibaka back and not Lowry, as that would amount to committing to the same middle path some people are staunchly against, only with a much lower ceiling and an even lower floor. Without the benefit of inside information, the expectation should be that a Lowry deal will flow rather quickly from this one, though things are obviously always subject to change, especially with how quickly things have changed over the last two weeks.
Assuming maximum annual raises, Ibaka’s deal could start as low as $20 million for this coming season, which is an important number as the Raptors appear to be maneuvering to avoid being too deep into the luxury tax. If Lowry’s deal starts around the rumored $27-million range, then the Raptors would have about $128.2 million committed to 14 players, a shade over the luxury tax apron. That’s why the team has been rumored to be shopping DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas in recent weeks and why the latest reports have the Raptors shopping Cory Joseph, possibly to Indiana, for only draft picks in return.
That current salary figure is over the luxury tax apron and doesn’t include a 15th man on the roster or the use of any exception. The Raptors would be limited to the taxpayer mid-level exception as currently set up, which starts at $5.19 million, but may be too tax-averse to use it. Moving Joseph wouldn’t get them below the tax but would lessen the hit, and they have Delon Wright ready to handle backup minutes. Paying a team to take Carroll – likely with a first-round pick – opens up more flexibility at a greater cost, a trade-off they may be game for if it opens up access to the $8.41-million non-taxpayer mid-level exception in the process. They’d be thin on the wing in that scenario, but Norman Powell is ready for a bigger role, and OG Anunoby and Bruno Caboclo could eventually supply depth (I mean, maybe).
The market for Valanciunas is still largely unknown, but the re-up for Ibaka makes him the most interesting potential salary dump. Ibaka was acquired to fill that power forward void, but he and Valanciunas didn’t mesh particularly well together, and most evidence suggests the 27-year-old Ibaka is better off playing center at this point. Ibaka himself has more or less indicated as much, and Ibaka at the five is a better fit for how the Raptors would prefer to defend, while also helping paper over some of their shooting issues by adding a stretchy center. He isn’t as quick laterally or as athletic as he was prior to injuries in Oklahoma City, and his rim protection numbers are good enough to suggest he may be better cast close to the rim. He’d still play some power forward in any roster scenario. He should be playing the bulk of his minutes at center, or alongside a center that allows Ibaka to play more of an inside role on defense.
With Ibaka shifting to center more frequently and Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira available to soak up backup minutes, Valanciunas would seem superfluous within the context of a fiscal crunch. That’s not to say he’s not a good piece, because he is. He is among the league’s best screen-setters, an elite rebounder, and comfortable in an efficient low-usage role on offense. Arguments have long been made that the Raptors could make greater use of him on offense, while others point to his defense as a limiting factor for the team. Valanciunas is divisive, but the push to move him wouldn’t necessarily be about the quality of player, but the fit, the salary cap situation, and the fact that a 25-year-old big with some decent offensive polish may still have value in a frigid market for centers. The Raptors should not just give him away, they’d have to figure out a way around being a poor rebounding team without him, and they’d probably need to add a discount power forward somehow if he’s gone. The market might be too cool on bigs to justify it at the return he’d bring back. But Valanciunas is now the most logical trade chip if the team doesn’t like his fit with Ibaka and really needs to avoid a heavy tax payment.
To be clear, MLSE has committed to spending into the tax, but Ujiir may not want to use that bullet just yet for a team with a ceiling something short of championship contention. Working with the assumption that the $125.3-million tax apron line is their internal budget is probably fair. Something will have to give here, whether it’s Valanciunas, Carroll at a cost, or Joseph with a razor-tight budget to fill out the roster afterward.
Jeff Zilgitt reports that there are no options on the deal, meaning Ibaka’s new contract lines up with the option year for DeMar DeRozan’s current deal and for the rumored length on a Lowry talk. That would mean the Raptors appear to be committing to this core for a three-year window, which, while not the unanimously desired approach, is a reasonable one. There is value in remaining good for a while longer and continuing to build up the organization, and the East is in flux. LeBron James is a legitimate threat to leave Cleveland in 2018, Boston appears poised to attack more in 2020 than 2018 the way things are going, and Milwaukee and Philadelphia, while incredibly intriguing, are yet to win a playoff series (or make the playoffs, in Philly’s case).
Other threats loom, and the moves to sap depth that Toronto may require to keep this group together threaten to weaken them some if there’s not internal growth. That’s the argument against moving forward, along with the championship-or-bust mentality some have. That’s a justified belief. The Raptors, with this group, don’t really have a path to championship contendership. But things change quickly, it’s important to create a semblance of stability and franchise quality, and the Raptors keep themselves in a position to take advantage if fortune or injury change the power structure in their conference. Realistically, they’ll also maintain a pivot foot with everyone on a three-year timeline, and Ibaka’s deal at these numbers should be moveable.
However you feel about the Ibaka signing will almost surely line up with where you stand on the continuum of overarching franchise goals. Ibaka is a move toward staying good for three more years, which is important for a franchise still building itself as a quality one. It also implies a ceiling, with a pretty inflexible cap sheet and no clear means of pushing this core higher short of hitting a home run on a late draft pick, and it pushes any eventual bottoming out further down the line.
If they’re going to keep going in this direction and lock in to running it back, with whatever system changes come with a “culture reset” and any internal improvement from their very young supporting cast, then this Ibaka deal is more than reasonable. It’s also the second of many shoes still to drop, and we won’t have a clear picture of exactly what the plan is here for a few days or weeks still.