Masai Ujiri finally did it.
In acquiring Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic on Tuesday (Feb. 14) the Toronto Raptors team president finally put his stamp on the Raptors team.
Ujiri had been pursuing a trade for Ibaka for what seems like forever and by waiting he acquired the power forward for a price he felt comfortable with.
The package of Terrence Ross and the Los Angeles Clippers’ first-round pick pales in comparison to the asking price of the Oklahoma City Thunder on draft night. OKC was asking for Norman Powell, Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson and the Raptors’ ninth overall pick in exchange for Ibaka. Eventually, they shipped him to Orlando for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and rookie Domantas Sabonis.
Ibaka fills a season-long void at the power forward position for the Raptors. Ujiri signed Jared Sullinger with the expectation of him starting at power forward but a foot injury and subsequent surgery sidelined Sullinger for months, and upon returning to the court he has looked out of shape and almost unplayable.
In his absence, the Raptors rotated through an assortment of unproven players in the power forward spot, including rookies Jakob Pertl, Pascal Siakam and the eccentric Lucas “BeBe” Nogueira. An injury-riddled season for Patrick Patterson further complicated the problem at the power forward position.
The trade comes at a time when the Raptors are playing some of the worst basketball of their season, having lost 10 of their last 14 games before the trade. Following Sunday’s loss to the Detroit Pistons, team leader Kyle Lowry expressed his frustration, telling reporters “something gotta give, something gotta change.”
And so Ujiri did something: he went out and acquired the best player available on the market. Although Ibaka isn’t the player he once was, he still represents a massive upgrade for the Raptors. It’s worth noting that Ibaka will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, but the Raptors do hold his rights, giving the team the opportunity to offer him a five-year contract, while all other teams can’t offer him longer than four years.
Ibaka is averaging 15.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game this season and is shooting a career-best 38.8 per cent from three-point range. His ability to space the floor and create space for all-star guards Derozan and Lowry will be a welcome addition to a team that already ranks third in the league in offensive rating per 100 possessions.
However, it’s clear this trade was made with the intention of improving the team defensively and having a lineup that can match Eastern Conference favourites Cleveland.
Ibaka has made the NBA All-Defensive Team three times in his career and is a legitimate rim protector. But is Ibaka enough to dethrone the favoured Cavaliers?
Ujiri has played his hand and it’s now up to the players to take the onus. The core of Derozan, Lowry, and Ibaka will have 26 games plus the playoffs to prove they are worth the long-term investment and dollars that could potentially be spent on Ibaka and Lowry once they become free agents at the end of the year.
If things go south, this offseason will be one with many narratives for a Raptors team that are now all-in.