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It’s okay to wish Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka were still Raptors

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With Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol gone, the Raptors are set to take a small step back on the court, but an even larger one off of it.

2019 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Winning a championship was always gonna make Raptors fans a little clingy, eager to hang on to every last thread keeping them connected to that spring where everything finally broke right. It’s why Kawhi Leonard’s travel plans were covered like the OJ chase, and why Kyle Lowry trade paranoia persisted through all of last summer even though he was never getting dealt. It’s no surprise then, that a weekend that saw beloved title-winning darlings Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol both skip town inside 24 hours sent the fan base into a bit of a manic state.

Look, I’ll cop to it. I, too, endured the seven stages of grief after Toronto’s lovable big man exodus, except in the place of “acceptance” was “googling Jan Vesely’s Euro League opt-out clause.”

Even with the Raptors’ totally understandable reasons for letting Ibaka and Gasol go, you’d have been forgiven for spiraling as you stared down an Aron Baynes-Alex Len replacement front court. It was a swap born out of cold calculus — the kind that lands you Leonard in an unpopular trade, or fires a coach who’s definitely good for one that’s maybe great. Sentimentality would have dictated multi-year offers to Ibaka and Gasol in an effort to have the 2020-21 team be as good and likeable as last year’s run it back squad, or the title team before it. Of course Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster don’t share the fan base’s attachment issues. As good executives do, they’ve got plans for the next big thing. Those plans, regrettably, slide good vibes down the priority ladder.

If the front office’s best laid plans bear fruit, and the Raptors get their big fish next summer, no one will complain, let alone shed a tear for a pair of bigs whose respective values come as much if not more off the court than on it. But until then, it’s okay to feel some kind of way about Ibaka and Gasol’s departures. Those dudes rocked, in every conceivable way.

They were ideal players to latch onto. With them, there was never fretting over whether they were 82-game or 16-game players, because they were good for all 98. The playoff viability was nice, in fact essential to the Raptors winning a ring. But to focus only on their worthiness of crunch time post-season minutes is to entirely miss the point about them both. Being meaningfully good in the name of winning big important games is crucial for two months of the year; being an entertaining delight to root for matters for three times as long. Some dudes provide the very best of both. Ibaka and Gasol were some dudes.

In losing Gasol, the Raptors lose the connective tissue that tied together what was a disjointed roster with championship potential. They lose a thrilling passing big, who changed the way a lot of Raps fans — myself very much included — enjoy basketball. Watching the team play without a 7-foot savant darting guard level passes around is gonna shock the system. Baynes and Len will be fine, sure, but in the brutish way that most normie centres are. Screen, dive, dunk, drop back and guard the rim, knock some fellas around — that’s all well and good, but it ain’t Gasol. Baynes even seems like the type of guy who will quickly earn fan favourite status, but he’s not a master gardener, or a part-time open-ocean rescuer, or the only player on Earth for whom a scoreless effort can look cooler than a 20-point night. There’s also no goddamn way Baynes can hold his rosé on a hot day like Gasol.

The connection to Ibaka runs even deeper. If Kyle Lowry is the engine that drives the Raptors on the court, Ibaka was the hub from which the team’s charm flowed off of it. Yeah, he on his own is a gregarious leading man, who frankly should have probably ended up in Hollywood a lot sooner. But the way a great point guard accentuates the best elements of their teammates’ games, Ibaka did so with the previously untapped character notes of those he played with. Toronto runs a serious operation, where attention to detail and giving a shit are prerequisites to hanging around. Ibaka was the team’s rogue fun-enjoyer. He stirred the pot, stuck cameras in teammates’ grills, and forced them to eat animal genitalia with a straight face. As a result, Ibaka got more out of the members of the two best teams in Raptors history than any beat reporter could have possibly revealed. He pierced through veneers like teeth breaking the membrane of a rocky mountain oyster. Without Ibaka there are no scarves, no Delon Wright gleefully slurping down lamb brains, and the amount of time we saw an open and chatty Kawhi drops from 20 minutes to absolute zero. Ibaka, perhaps more than anyone else, is why Raptors fans are clingers.

You get why all parties involved did what they did last weekend. Were I Gasol, a father of three at the tail end of my career, playing a season out of a suitcase in Tampa Bay wouldn’t exactly be my first choice given the allure of a LeBron team-up and a spot on the title favourites. Ibaka gets a better shot at a ring, too, and more security in a city with no shortage of made-for-TV kitchens. Toronto hangs on to the 2021 cap room its been working toward for the last half decade. All that sound logic doesn’t make it any easier to reckon with in the near aftermath. The Raptors are a less fun team to root for now than they were a week a ago — a sting that will wear off over time, but feels debilitating in the moment. The moves come with the promise of flexibility; of a pivot into a new window of contention through the 2020s if things break right. And they very well could. Plan A currently plays for a team that doesn’t know how the cap works, and Summer 2021 will be loaded with Plan Bs, whether through free agency or trade. Parting with Ibaka and Gasol keeps all those options in play.

Of course that newly opened window is by no means a guarantee. There’s a chance the Raptors traded a couple extra years of guaranteed fun for a transition year that morphs into more transition years. Giannis could stay put, or choose Miami or Dallas. Maybe Rudy Gobert or Victor Oladipo sign on, but aren’t the ceiling-raisers the Raptors are likely to need. As long as the Thunder don’t get contracted, there will always be another team out there with a better trade offer for a pissed off star.

All of that said, it’s all probably worth the calculated risk, especially considering the ages if Ibaka and Gasol. That doesn’t mean your sadness isn’t justified. That hot ball of lead you felt in your stomach as the news of them leaving dropped confirms they were worth giving a shit about. You’d be forgiven for wishing the Raptors had taken the road well travelled over the path of high stakes mystery.

Gasol and Ibaka are the types of guys who mature one’s fandom, confirming that titles aren’t the only way to derive joy from your favourite team. They highlight the value of the journey. Even with Gasol and Ibaka back in tow, this was in all likelihood not a championship-level team. That didn’t seem to matter in the hours and days after their decisions came down. Knowing that all the good they brought to Toronto was gone over one fast-paced weekend was a blow. Same as it will be to watch the valour-thieving Clippers benefit from all that Ibaka bring to the table. The idea of OG Anunoby cutting only to receive a wayward pass from someone other than Gasol makes cold February regular season nights a little less fun to look forward to.

As Gasol and Ibaka helped to prove this past season, there’s a whole lot to be said for watching a team of guys that you like, even if that team’s title hopes are slim. None of this is to suggest this coming season’s Raptors won’t be loveable as well. But in a year where most of the team is headed into a free agency in which the best-case scenario sees them sacrificed for cap room, and where there’s a heinous domestic case pending against a member of the team, Toronto’s likeability ceiling is substantially lower. The 2020-21 Raptors might be a good team with some deeply loveable pieces, but with no Ibaka and Gasol, it’s hard to envision this version of the team being one worth clinging to years after the fact. Cold calculus comes at a price.