We can process the Serge Ibaka news in a few different ways. Maybe there ought to be some model which describes the stages of emotions that you go through when a loved free agent leaves, but here I’ve collected not linear stages but passing feelings.
This is strong on account of the championship. The 2018-19 roster (including Jeremy Lin) has a place in our hearts and minds forever, so when any of those players exits a part of the championship fades. As eloquently illustrated in Winnie the Pooh, “How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
Ibaka’s grittiness, clutch play and consistent effort is what Toronto fans of any sport love, and he added that extra spice that truly captures what fans love about players: sacrifice. In his years here he never complained about minutes, a starting role, or any coaching decisions. He kept relentlessly plugging away at the team goal and was able to produce even when playing time was unpredictable. He was an easy player to support. Watching him exit hurts.
He left to join Kawhi Leonard. As much as we tell ourselves it’s understandable to leave because a player in the later stage of his career is chasing a title, it still sucks. Especially if they’re likely to be chasing the West semis more than a ring. The title glow glossed over Leonard’s exit but there’s no such solace to be had in Ibaka’s departure. Only the loss of a player that has shown to be a sizable factor in the team’s fortunes.
There is certainly salt on the wounds here because of where he went and not just because he left. I didn’t realize Kawhi Leonard leaving was going to hurt the Raptors over multiple years but I look forward to laughing at them in the next stage of their devolution.
Leaving all the soft stuff aside this hurts on the court more than anything. It’s not like the Raptors are losing Danny Green who could be easily replaced by a multitude of options, they’re losing a core productive piece that the team depended on through multiple stretches of the game. He leaves a defensive, three-point shooting, rebounding and two-man game void that will be difficult to fill.
His paint presence made him a defensive spine and he was also able to, in spurts, defend the perimeter allowing the Raptors to switch aggressively and maintain that vaunted defensive agility. He was a central cog in Nick Nurse’s defensive schemes that brought experience and skill – he was the Tyson Chandler that Dwane Casey tried to find for all those years. Except he was better.
I wonder how the Raptors would have approached draft night if they had a stronger idea of what Ibaka was planning on doing. That ship has sailed and now the job becomes to what degree the Raptors want to spend to fill this void, especially if it’s a bridge year.
What makes dynasties so special is that they’re able to maintain excellence over time. Though the Raptors never seriously flirted with a repeat or any sort of a dynastic twine, the realization that the Raptors are truly entering a bridge year is slightly disheartening. We probably knew a couple years of minor reconstruction was coming and hoped that a path carved in good fortune could take the Raptors to the East or NBA finals during this readjustment period. With Ibaka’s exit that hope has faded.
The acceptance that we are not even a conference contender (as currently constructed) is a pill that is proving to be difficult to swallow even though we knew we had to swallow it. Ibaka’s decision to join the joke that is the Clipjoint speaks to what he thinks of the Raptors chances of contention because unlike Leonard, he doesn’t have the “home” excuse to market.
I am not present on social media but even as a recluse I observed his popularity with the fans. He seemed to love the city (which I’m sure he still does) and looked like he had found a home after his unproductive stay in Orlando. This was a city which embraced him as he was and loved it all. We ate him up, sometimes literally. He developed a personal brand and the city served as the backdrop. He was the new Toronto athlete – tough, charismatic, talented, lovable and with an international flavour. He embodied a lot of what this city was about.
It looked like he had carved himself a nest that he wasn’t yet ready to depart so his exit is a mild shock to the system. At the very least it was unexpected because all the pieces seemed to fit nicely in Toronto, but as we have found out over the years, there’s a lot about the warm weather that serves as the tie-breaker.