Tuesday , November 24 2020

The departure of Serge Ibaka is a heavy blow to the Raptors’ aspirations for the championship

For now, there are few details and the circumstances are not fully understood, but on the same day the Toronto Raptors managed to keep their free agent protector, losing their most lively big man.

The excitement that greeted the news on Saturday morning that Fred VanVleet had re-signed his contract with Toronto eased when Serge Ibaka signed a two-year contract with the Los Angeles Clippers worth $ 19 million late Saturday night.

The move – which was unexpected – leaves the Raptors without another member of their league core, one of the most colorful players in franchise history, and currently without a viable contract center.

“We’ll be fine,” was a text message from President Raptor Masai Ujiri shortly after he was informed of the deal.

Ujiri and Raptors CEO Bobby Webster deserve more than the benefit of doubt at this stage, given that they have seven consecutive playoff appearances, not to mention the 2019 title. But it’s hard to twist the notion of Ibaka’s departure as anything other than as a heavy blow to a team hoping to compete for championships.

At the moment, Ibaki’s combination of silence and defensive abilities spread across the floor seems hard to replace.

Given that the Raptors’ second current center, Marc Gasol, is a free agent who collects some of his interest elsewhere, and the only other greats on the list are too young Chris Boucher – who has never played a stable NBA minute – and second-year Dewan Hernandez, at best a long-term project, Ujiri’s definition of “okay” may be relative.

What is not difficult to argue is that Ibaka, while he was ready to leave, was on his way to becoming a national hero in Toronto.

The smooth-bore shooting center with the carved frame and cheekbones that hit him turned from a distant and taciturn early on his tour, with a couple of poor playoff appearances on his behalf to freedom and one of the Raptors ’most important playoff playoffs. The last games for Toronto were some of his best.

He played parts here four seasons after arriving from Orlando Magic for the 2017 trade deadline and seemed to improve every year in subtle and not-so-subtle ways – which is no small feat for someone with so many professional miles on tires .

Last year was his 11th season and perhaps his best – averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds per game in 36 minutes, both the highest in his career – and he shot 39 per cent out of three out of almost five attempts per game.

He was better as a starter – he shot 43.7 percent from three in 27 games in that role – and he was even better in the playoffs where he shot 57 percent from the floor, 51.1 percent from depth and was one of the Raptors’ several reliable options as the Toronto attack was halted in the second round against Boston.

But Ibaca’s Raptor transformation was so complete that so many of his fans mourned when news leaked that he had reunited with fun guy Kawhie Leonard – ‘What it do baby’ – to take a run in the second ring with the Los Angeles Clippers.

He had to watch his shows “How Hungry You Are” in which he unforgettably served Leonardo some really disturbing dishes, including beef penis pizza. There don’t seem to be any heavy feelings.

It was how boring you were, when for so many people from his locked life he lit up the dark days of quarantine – albeit from a much nicer apartment than most. And there was the Avec Classe – a YouTube series in which fashion striker Ibaka called on teammates for a makeover, with occasional hilarious results and viral arguments about scarves.

As a Raptor, he seemed to become a person and a player entirely.

“… he’s more confident,” Kyle Lowry remarked when I interviewed him after attending an Ibake documentary he produced about his incredible journey from the streets of Brazzaville in Congo to the Raptors Championship parade. “You win the championship and things like that happen. You can go out on other avenues. I think winning the championship has given him a bigger stage to promote his continent, his people, and he’s doing even more now. “

In that context, a tour of Los Angeles will suit Ibaki well – he has a lot to offer on and off the floor. If he can help the Clippers get 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 much the Spanish veterans struggled in 2019-20. – Then who? What then?

Options are available and the Raptors can offer a full mid-level ($ 9.3 million for a year or potentially $ 39 million for four) if they have to.

Could Aaron Baynes, the Suns ’blue center, who recently developed a three-point passing shot, could be tempting for a year of mid-level ($ 9.3 million) – which could be optimistic. Former Raptor Bismack Biyombo would probably be cheaper and defensively fill the hole even if an offensively challenged big man created one on the other side. Hassan Whiteside can block shots and bounce with the best of them, but he seems to create drama at every stop. It is as big as big bodies.

Perhaps the Raptors ’best option could be a smaller lineup, with Pascal Siakam and / or OG Anunoby scoring more minutes as a theoretical center in the fifth set, which are becoming more common. It was promising signs during the playoffs.

The Raptors – Ujiri, Webster and head coach Nick Nurse – mostly understand things.

That’s the soothing part. But at the moment Ibaka’s loss seems the opposite in line, and as he performed on the floor it was only half.

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