Serge Ibaka Trade: Why the Raptors Are Now Title Contenders
The Toronto Raptors were second fiddle to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference a year ago. For much of the 2016-17 NBA season, it appeared that would remain the case.
It was actually worse than that for the Raptors, who due to some health issues regressed and currently sit tied for fourth in the conference they once partially dominated.
Now with a healthy DeMar DeRozan back in the fold, the Raptors can start thinking about getting back the Atlantic Division and possibly reclaiming the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
That was the thinking before Tuesday, at least.
With news breaking of the trade for big man Serge Ibaka, it might not be too crazy to think the Raptors can hope for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, as well as a whole lot more:
— SportsCentre (@SportsCentre) February 14, 2017
Making a splash is one thing, but the Raptors corrected a long-standing wrong here. Not only are they giving themselves a boost out of their current funk (just 4-6 over their last 10 games), but they just might have scored the final piece to a potential championship puzzle. Let’s count the reasons why:
The Raptors Needed a Jolt
This isn’t the reason why trading for Serge Ibaka is huge, but it can’t hurt. The Raptors had regressed overall from where they were a year ago, and that was happening for three key reasons: Boston got better, Toronto’s defense slid backward and DeMar DeRozan (ankle) missed a ton of time due to his injury.
Toronto needed a jolt at both ends and this serves as a huge talent boost as a key position, as well as a shot in the arm defensively. In fact, Ibaka brings a winning attitude from his days with the Thunder and he had to hate losing in Orlando. His presence will be huge and could provide a massive lift for a team that had been struggling really since 2017 rolled around.
Power Forward Upgrade
Trading for Ibaka is massive, as the Raptors have struggled for years with one distinct area of their team: power forward.
Patrick Patterson never stepped up, Jared Sullinger was a free agent bust, Pascal Siakam hasn’t been ready and the same can be said for the likes of Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueria, who both are better fits at center.
The simple fact is Toronto has had an answer everywhere in their starting five, but never at the four spot. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan give them elite options at the two main guard spots, DeMarre Carroll is an elite defender who can knock down open three’s at the three spot and Jonas Valanciunas is inconsistent, but still one of the best young true centers in the game today.
Ibaka’s presence and talent give them without a doubt the best power forward they’ve had in years and could potentially complete a starting unit that could finally be ready to compete for a title.
Ibaka’s Actual Impact
Here’s the kicker: Serge Ibaka is really good. People didn’t seem to appreciate how nasty this guy was when he was with the Oklahoma City Thunder, or they’ve been distracted by him being traded to (and stuck on) a losing team like the Magic.
Ibaka eventually pouted in OKC and his effectiveness can at times be limited due to the way the league has changed (more and more stretch fours draw Ibaka out to limit his shot-blocking and rebounding).
That has never kept him from providing an impact, however. He can still block shots and clean the glass with the best of them, while Ibaka has a big, bruising and athletic body that can follow stretch fours or bang with big guys down low. The guy can flat-out defend and is a huge defensive addition to a Raptors defense that had some bite a year ago but seemed to have lost it.
Offensively, Ibaka was always out of place in Orlando. He got his opportunity to be “the guy” and hopefully he realize losing a ton of games wasn’t worth it. Now in Toronto, he’ll assume a similar role we saw him dominate in OKC, where he can help stretch the floor, hit in-the-flow open jumpers and also crash the flass.
Ibaka is an extremely useful, high energy two-way option and a borderline star. He’ll never be a superstar and he needs to realize his limitations and play within the system, but that’s really been the case for everyone else Toronto has collected, too.
The Raptors are essentially made up of three ISO scorers (now 4 if you count Ibaka) but all of them (even Jonas V) can seamlessly slide into a defined role and contribute specific positives within the system.
Ibaka just happens to be the last, arguably most important piece.
Toronto Was Already Right There
Why does Serge Ibaka put the Raptors over the top and into title contention? Because the natural progression has already been seen.
The Raptors were in the Eastern Conference Finals last year and even stole two games from the Cavs. The gap has been closed here. Ibaka can lock down guys like Kevin Love and help keep LeBron James and Kyrie Irving from dominating the paint. Ibaka’s presence can help Jonas Valanciunas relax a bit more defensively and avoid foul trouble, while he also frees up Carroll defensively, as well.
Offensively, the other guys will be a little less spent with Ibaka’s defensive aggression providing some relief, while an already explosive and efficient offense gets another guy who can score and get second-chance opportunities.
The Raptors had regressed and were dealing with a banged up DeMar DeRozan, but he’s back and now they got their missing piece. if they’re going to rise up and compete for a title, now is the time to do it.
Toronto Isn’t Without Depth
This isn’t just about where the Raptors were a season ago or what Ibaka means to them. The trade for Ibaka did lose them a future first round draft pick and a very solid bench scorer in Terrence Ross.
That’d be a big loss for most teams, but the emergence of fellow backup Norman Powell as a strong two-way player and the always reliable creation and scoring out of backup point guard Cory Joseph make the loss of Ross palatable.
More than that, they make it perfectly fine. This was already a deep team, but Ibaka comes in and leaves guys like Jared Sullinger, Patrick Patterson and others on the bench. That only adds to their depth and potential impact in sticky situations come playoff time.
In the worst case scenario, Norman Powell soaks up all of the minutes and scoring load Ross was responsible for, and judging by what we’ve seen out of him, that doesn’t make for much of a downgrade (if at all).
The Raptors Are Ready
Only time will tell if trading for Serge Ibaka is what finally gets the Raptors over the hump. However, this team has been a steady force in the Eastern Conference for the past few years and finally looks as complete as ever.
It could take some time for Ibaka to fit in and for this team to fully adjust, but Toronto finally has the balance on both sides of the court to make a run at the #1 seed and dreams of a title run are no longer crazy talk.
Top betting sites like Bovada currently give the Raptors the seventh best NBA Finals odds (+4000). Something tells us those odds will see a spike in the near future.
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