The Toronto Raptors urgent need to retain Spanish-Congolese born Center Serge Ibaka was laid bare in the Eastern Conference sweep at the hands of Cleveland Cavaliers. Following his midseason move to Canada from the southernmost state in the US, Ibaka instantly became a key figure in Toronto’s rotation as the Raptors bowed to Cleveland for the second straight season in the playoffs.
With another successful year in the bag (Toronto won at least 50 games for the third straight season), comes a tricky offseason that could spell the end of the team’s contention for an NBA Finals appearance and title shout.
All-Star Point Guard Kyle Lowry is a free agent and will command big money when July comes around. Toronto holds the aces in the former Houston Rockets deal since it is the only team that can offer him a five year maximum contract. However, since his decision to become a free agent was made official, there has been deep consternation about his next move since he indicated his priority is to win an NBA Championship further emboldening that by saying he can win anywhere.
Anywhere could be San Antonio, where the Spurs are likely to lose Manu Ginobli to retirement and have Tony Parker take a back seat following his latest injury setback and declining prowess. A partnership with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge looks deadly on paper and on court.
However, should Toronto General Manager Masai Ujiri bet on the 31 year old to stay fit and maintain his All Star form at least for the next four seasons, Lowry will be signed to a bumper deal that mirrors All Star teammate DeMar DeRozan’s $28 million salary for the next four years. It is interesting to note that DeRozan’s deal is slightly under the full maximum level contract that saved Toronto a few millions prior to the season’s start.
Conversely, whether Lowry signs or not, the Raptors must keep Serge Ibaka on board. What the playoffs encounter taught the Raptors and pretty much everyone is quite simple; offense wins championships and not just games as the notion goes.
For instance, Toronto paraded the eighth best defensive team in the league before the Cavs, who ranked 21st in the regular season, beat them in four games after Cleveland’s second rated offense came to the party. With Lowry sidelined by injury, Raptors chances of making it past LeBron James grew more difficult but Ibaka emerged as a reliable sidekick as he has been the past two seasons chipping in 14.3 points in 10 postseason games.
After seeing out the last final season of his four year $ 12.5 million a year deal, Ibaka is set to sign for any club for a salary in the region of 20-22 million dollars per season which is good money for a Center who fits perfectly in the modern game that emphasizes shooting from distance; Serge made 41 three point shots on 103 attempts. Toronto should have little problem paying him but like all teams in the league that try to build “Super Teams”, committing huge money to a group of players means other peripheral players salaries have to be closely engineered to make it work.
In Toronto’s case, should Lowry and Ibaka sign big deals and stay in the Canadian city, Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll’s combined $60 million for the next two years surely will have to go. Valanciunas five year tenure in the league has been a steady growth but after half a decade’s lessons in the world’s best league, the Lithuanian seven footer is yet to explode. His scoring (12 points this past season) is good not spectacular but what is more worrying is his underwhelming defense which three time All-NBA Defensive member Ibaka solves easily.
Speaking of defense , that was Carroll’s specialty that convinced the Raptors to sign him on a four year $ 60 million deal in 2015. Carroll’s offense was equally impressive (12.6 points in the regular season in his final season in Atlanta) flexing the vaunted two way play that has made Kawhi Leonard an MVP candidate. However, all that has frozen up in Canada’s deep freeze as the former Utah Jazz man’s 14.6 points in his final playoff season in Atlanta has plummeted to 8.9 in 2016 and 4.2 in 2017.
Making Ibaka starting Center gives Toronto offensive power to complement that of DeRozan and Lowry while maintaining its top ten defense. It also allows Coach Dwayne Casey to bend his roster to fit any rotation any opponent throws at him be it small or big. Fellow free agent, who also arrived with Ibaka midway through the season, PJ Tucker’s likely bargain contract is good enough to keep him on the roster and replicate Carroll’s tough defensive tenacity during the latter’s Atlanta days.
With further development from young guns Norman Powell, Delonte Wright, Bruno Caboclo and NBA Development League Finals MVP Pascal Siakam, Toronto will be good enough to make the NBA Finals dream come true but that can happen by getting Ibaka back in the fold.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter