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NBA Trade Rumour: Raptors interested in Serge Ibaka (again)

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Maybe power forward option #1001 will be the one?

NBA: Orlando Magic at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

In case you missed it, the Raptors have a hole at power forward. And, because it’s that time of year, it is law that we over-analyze every scrap of evidence that points towards Masai Ujiri and Jeff Weltman potentially adding a four at the deadline.

The latest rumour is, admittedly, barely even a rumour. In a piece centred around possible Carmelo Anthony trade destinations, The Undefeated’s Marc Spears mentioned the Raptors as a potentially cozy fit, while weaving in a nugget pertaining to Ujiri’s white whale of summer 2016:

Selling point: Anthony said during the 2016 NBA All-Star Weekend in Toronto that he is a fan of the Canadian city. With the Toronto Raptors, he would join forces with a star-studded backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. All three were teammates on USA Basketball’s 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics gold medal-winning team. Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri actually traded Anthony to the Knicks while serving as the Nuggets’ general manager. Toronto has had its eye on landing a power forward like Orlando’s Serge Ibaka before the trade deadline, a source said. But if the Raptors can’t land Ibaka, perhaps Anthony is the next best move. O Canada, get Melo.

That the Raptors’ front office would like to add a power forward of Serge Ibaka’s ilk is not all that surprising. Reports suggest the Raptors were in hot pursuit of him before he was shipped out of Oklahoma City.

Even when Patrick Patterson is fully-functioning, the Raptors’ lack of depth at the position leaves them exposed for the 15-20 minutes a game he sits. When he’s out — as he has been for 13 of the last 22 games — the power forward slot becomes a volatile testing ground for Dwane Casey. Some strange front court concoctions have worked. The Lucas Nogueira-Jonas Valanciunas pairing, for example, inexplicably has a NET Rating of +9.3 while stingily allowing less than a point per possession on defense. Other solutions, like Pascal Siakam, Jared Sullinger and Norman Powell in smaller units, have yielded results ranging from so-so to catastrophic.

A piece like Ibaka makes loads of sense in a vacuum. But this is the NBA. Trade mechanics and future considerations in an evolving salary cap climate throw some variables into the equation. Not to mention the “desperate GM of an awful team clinging to his job” factor that is present in any trade negotiation with the Magic.

What’s the Price?

There are no allegorical ties between Ibaka’s trade value and the Migos track — for each day Ibaka moves closer to free agency, the price to acquire him should theoretically be going down.

However, Orlando GM Rob Hennigan’s past misgivings make it so the cost to land Ibaka may not be as low as one might expect. In exchange for Ibaka’s walk year, Hennigan shipped out Victor Oladipo, and the pick that became Domantas Sabonis — both of whom start for a 31-23 Thunder team. The optics of shipping out Ibaka for 50 cents on the dollar just 8 months after selling the farm to get him might spell the end of Hennigan’s tenure with the Magic. At the same time, holding on to Ibaka for the remainder of a lost season and risking his departure for nothing is an equally fireable offense.

Ultimately the price for Ibaka will be determined by the extent to which Hennigan is willing to cut his losses. At this point, it remains unclear where and when he will draw that line.

Any Raptors offer for the Orlando big man will have salary matching as a baseline requirement. Ibaka earns a shade over $12 million a year. Unlike last year, the Raptors are stocked with movable contracts and an array of possible trade frameworks. A Terrence Ross for Ibaka swap checks out financially, as does a package of Cory Joseph and Jared Sullinger. Starting with one of those skeletons and adding picks and prospects to Orlando’s taste would be the best way to maximize the roster for the remainder of the season.

There are other possibilities as well, but most of them raise the question of whether or not the upgrade to the front court would be worth the downgrade to other parts of the roster. Packaging DeMarre Carroll and Norman Powell, for example, would rid the Raptors of their only semi-onerous contract. On the other hand, gutting the team’s wing depth would create a whack-a-mole situation when it comes to Toronto’s weaknesses.

In short, there’s a limit to how much the Raptors could part with before a deal for Ibaka becomes redundant.

The Fit

This is easy. Ibaka’s blend of above-average three-point shooting and flip-flop-ability between the two front court positions would solidify one of the weakest position groups of any current playoff team. Imagine the comfort of divvying up the 96 minutes at power forward and centre mostly between Ibaka, Patterson and Jonas Valanciunas? A world where Lucas Nogueira is a luxury instead of a critical minutes-eater is one I want to live in.

Patterson and Valanciunas are already a dominant pairing. Much of Ibaka’s game mirrors Patterson’s — just replace Patterson’s positional mastery on defense with a tad more flare and rim protection. It stands to reason that Ibaka-JV combinations could post a similarly gaudy plus/minus figures.

Then there’s the tantalizing option of deploying Ibaka and Patterson duos. Throwing a trap at Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan becomes a lot less tenable when both of your primary screeners are shooters with playmaking capacity.

Ibaka’s defensive impact has been lessened in recent years after knee surgery. But given the low standard of defensive talent across the Raptors’ roster, present day Ibaka would still inject a need boost on that end of the floor.

As is, Toronto probably has the talent to return to the Eastern Conference Finals, despite its recent spell of uneven play. Ibaka would vault it back into its former slot just beneath Cleveland in the East hierarchy, and significantly boost the odds of a second straight May 24 weekend with Raptors playoff basketball to watch.

I’ll reiterate: in a vacuum, an Ibaka deal makes too much sense for the Raptors to not explore it.

Long-term Implications

These are the trickiest waters the Raptors have to navigate when considering a move for Ibaka. He’s about to get a gigantic contract as the cap surges to a new all-time high this summer. Doling out a near-max deal for a legitimate star like, say, Paul Millsap is close to a no-brainer; for someone a tier below stardom like Ibaka, a hefty long-term contract offer requires more contemplation.

Toronto is a victim of the league’s cap spike, mostly due to the timing of it. While most of the Raptors’ cap sheet is locked up under old-CBA contracts, Toronto’s three most important players will all soon be making post-spike money. DeRozan earned his payday last summer, while both Lowry and Patterson are set to walk into free agency with the salary cap resting above $100 million. Toronto will have to enter the luxury tax to hold on to both. An expensive long-term deal for an in-house Ibaka would A) be difficult to accomplish without saying goodbye to Patterson or off-loading virtually every other high-priced contract on the roster and B) lock the Raptors in to a hypothetical Lowry-DeRozan-Ibaka-Valanciunas(or Patterson) core for the long haul.

That’s a talented set of players to roll with. If the Raptors are looking to follow the Memphis Grizzlies’ model of long-term, entertaining competitiveness, that’s a core you can sleep easily with.

Of course, the conversation around this team always circles back to breaking down the LeBron-sized wall in the East. If it’s Finals appearance or bust during Lowry’s prime, then the Raptors had better hope someone like Norman Powell or Jakob Poeltl develops into an unexpected star to help unlock a higher ceiling for the roster. Otherwise, a deal for Ibaka might ultimately leave the Raptors and their fans with the same existential conundrum they’re dealing with today.

What would you part ways with to make an Ibaka deal happen?