Another week closer to the trade deadline, folks. A couple weeks ago, when I used this space to write about Carmelo Anthony, I wrote about the rumour mill itself — how even the least reputable bits of news can get attention if they offer intrigue.
Intrigue is getting more attainable for Raptors fans. As we watch the Raptors scrape by and continue to struggle defensively — mainly in the frontcourt — the desperation to see some sort of trade action ratchets up.
Raptors fans are '2 am at the bar' desperate for any name on the rumor mill— William Lou (@william_lou) February 2, 2017
Which brings us to a player Raptors fans more or less wrote off in the off-season: Serge Ibaka.
When Ibaka’s free agency came up last summer, it was fair to look at the struggling Oklahoma City Thunder power forward and turn the other way. While Ibaka ended up a shot-maker in the Thunder’s run to the Western Conference Finals, most aspects of his game fell off in 2015-16, his seventh NBA season. His 12.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game were all serious drop-offs from the previous four seasons, when he was chosen as the new third banana in Oklahoma City following the James Harden trade.
So teams looked at him, and he was eventually traded to Orlando. Now, as their backlogged frontcourt is affecting their win total, the Magic are having a fire sale of sorts. Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic, and Ibaka have all been sourced as tradable pieces.
For Ibaka in Orlando, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. While his scoring has gone up with a higher usage rate (17.6% last year to 21.1% in 2016-17), most other aspects of his game have stymied. Blocked shots, once his modus operandi, continue to drop off season-to-season. His 1.6 blocks per game this year is good for 13th in the league.
The Basketball Fit
So why should the Raptors be interested? With Ibaka making just over $12 million this season, Toronto would need to give up Terrence Ross or some combination of young players and picks to get this guy — whose game has deteriorated at the ripe old age of 27. Sources have suggested the team isn’t keen on doing a Ross-for-Ibaka swap.
Even in his current state, though, Ibaka can be a difference-maker on both ends for a thin Raptors frontcourt. He would be noticeable on the offensive end first, where added range has made him a 38.1% three-point shooter, launching a career-high 3.9 per game. Looking at his shot chart, there’s promising percentages in efficient areas of the floor.
While he’s not necessarily eschewing the mid-range game — his shot selection is good for a big, and his 56.4% true shooting percentage is pleasing, while not mind-blowing.
On the other end, knee surgery has robbed him of leaping power, which affects his rim deterrence. However, his defensive intelligence is still strong, and he can still do what other Raptors can’t: scare teams away from the paint.
You see in highlight packages like this one — from a 21 point, four block performance against Detroit — that the game has slowed down for him as well.
The offensive moves are patient and determined. The defensive positioning is nice. Ibaka, in the prime years of his career, does have the advantage of experience over a more flighty player like Lucas Nogueira.
The Emotional Fit
That said, this is a true rental for the Raptors. Ibaka will surely seek some form of long-term deal in the off-season, and Toronto is not suited to provide it. With an extension offer surely coming to Kyle Lowry, the Raptors won’t be flying into the luxury tax for someone like Ibaka, and would watch him leave after just four months in a red and black jersey.
So, is it worth giving up assets for him? That depends on your outlook for this season. As the Raptors fall slowly in the standings, a win-now trade like Terrence Ross for Serge Ibaka would bolster their chances to get back into second, but would not be enough to present extra challenge to Cleveland.
Adding Serge Ibaka to the fray would be a short-term move from a team that’s dedicated to a long play. While the verdict is still out — it really does depend on your position on win-now vs. development — this would be a surprise trade from someone like Masai Ujiri.
Note: A previous version of this article stated that Orlando signed Ibaka. He was actually acquired by the Magic via trade.