For now, the details are few and the circumstances are not fully understood, but on the same day that the Toronto Raptors managed to keep their guard free, they lost their most viable big guy.
The enthusiasm that received the news on Saturday morning that Fred VanVleet had re-signed with Toronto was tempered when Serge Ibaka signed with the Los Angeles Clippers for a two-year deal worth $ 19 million on Saturday night.
The change – which was unexpected – leaves the Raptors without another member of its championship core, one of the most colorful players in the franchise’s history, and at the moment without a viable center under contract.
“We’ll be fine,” was the text message from the president of Raptors, Masai Ujiri, shortly after the deal was announced.
Ujiri and Raptors general manager Bobby Webster deserves more than the benefit of the doubt at this stage, as they have seven consecutive games in the playoffs, not to mention the 2019 title. But it’s hard to imagine Ibaka leaving as anything else. if not a hard blow to a team that hopes to play championships.
For now, Ibaka’s combination of ground shooting and defensive skill seems difficult to replace.
Given that the Raptors’ other starter center, Marc Gasol, is a free agent who attracts his share of interest elsewhere and the only other big players on the list are Chris Boucher – who has never played constant NBA minutes – and second-year Dewan Hernandez , a long-term project at best, Ujiri’s definition of ‘ok’ may be relative.
What is not hard to argue is that when Ibaka was ready to leave, he was on his way to becoming a popular hero in Toronto.
The skilled shooting center with the sculpted structure and cheekbones to match had transformed from distant and taciturn at the start of his tour with a couple of weak playoff performances on his behalf to loose and free and one of the most important playoff heroes from the Raptors. His last games for Toronto were some of the best.
He played parts of four seasons here after arriving from the Orlando Magic on the negotiating deadline in 2017 and seemed to improve in subtle and not-so-subtle ways each year – a no small feat for someone with so many professional miles on their tires.
Last year was his 11th season and may have been his best – he averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds per game on a 36-minute basis, both career highlights – and hit 39 percent out of three out of nearly five attempts per game.
He was better as a starter – shooting 43.7 percent in three out of 27 games in that role – and was even better in the playoffs, where he shot 57 percent off the ground, 51.1 percent deep and was one of the Raptors’ few options reliable as the Toronto attack was halted in the second round against Boston.
But Ibaka’s transformation as a Raptor was so complete that it was his off-stage presence that so many fans mourned when the news that he was reuniting with Fun Guy Kawhi Leonard – ‘What does that do, baby’ – to catch one running in another ring with the Los Angeles Clippers.
He had his unmissable cooking show How Hungry Are You, where he served guests some truly disturbing dishes, including memorable beef penis pizza for Leonard. No hard feelings, apparently.
There was How bored you are, when he lit up the dark quarantine days for so many of his own locked lives – albeit from a much nicer apartment than most. And there was Avec Classe – the YouTube series in which Ibaka invited teammates for a makeover, with occasionally hilarious results and viral arguments about scarves.
As a Raptor, he became a person and a complete player, it seemed.
“… He’s more confident,” Kyle Lowry observed when I interviewed him after he watched a documentary Ibaka produced about his improbable journey from the streets of Brazzaville, Congo, to the Raptors championship parade. “You win a championship and things like that happen. You are able to go to other avenues. I think winning a championship has given him a bigger stage to promote his continent, his people, and he’s doing it even more now. “
In this context, a tour of Los Angeles will serve Ibaka well – he has a lot to offer on and off the track. If he can help bring the Clippers to their first title, his platform will only grow.
But the Raptors’ problem is what he leaves behind. If not Ibaka or Gasol – or even if Gasol returns, given how hard the Spanish veteran fought in 2019-20 – then who? So what?
Options are available and Raptors can offer the full mid-level ($ 9.3 million for one year or potentially $ 39 million for four) if needed.
Could Aron Baynes, the ferocious Suns pivot who recently developed a reasonable three-point shot, be seduced for a year at the middle level ($ 9.3 million) – that can be optimistic. Former Raptor Bismack Biyombo would probably be cheaper and fill a hole defensively, even if the big man challenged by the offensive could create one at the other end. Hassan Whiteside can block shots and rebound with the best of them, but he seems to create drama at every stop. He’s as big as big bodies can get.
Perhaps the Raptors’ best options are smaller lineups, with Pascal Siakam and / or OG Anunoby registering more minutes as the theoretical center in series of five that are becoming increasingly common. There were some promising signs of this during the playoffs.
Raptors – Ujiri, Webster and coach Nick Nurse – usually find out.
This is the reassuring part. But for now, losing Ibaka seems the opposite of certain, and his performance on the ground was only half.