Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri brought power forward Serge Ibaka to the Raptors this week at a critical time for the team. The Raptors have won only 5 of their last 16 games, a dismal record thus far in 2017. They have slid from second in the conference down to fourth, with the formerly razor sharp offence looking dull. Defense, of course, remains a lingering issue, exacerbated by the lack of offence. The absence and inconsistent offensive play of workhorse Patrick Patterson among others hasn’t help either. Indeed, these Raptors looked an awful lot like the 2015 team that keeled over in four games to John Wall and the Washington Wizards in the first round.
Ujiri, well aware of his teams’ plight, sent guard/small forward Terrence Ross along with the lower of the Raptors’ two first round picks to the Orlando Magic for Ibaka. Ibaka helped the OKC Thunder to the NBA finals in 2012, where he was a pivotal piece defensively against the three amigos, King James, Wade and Bosh. This year with Orlando, he’s averaging 15 points and 7 rebounds. With a better offensive team like the Raptors, he will undoubtedly be a frequent double-double contributor. He also brings high-calibre basketball experience from the Durant era in OKC and is an absolute monster on defense. Head coach Dwane Casey was delighted with the signing. Though Ibaka is strictly a rental for the time being, Ujiri intends to re-sign him as a free agent in the offseason.
The deal also means that Norman Powell will see more well-deserved playing time in place of Terrence Ross. Powell brings a more complete game; he is a stellar defender, he drives the net like no one’s business and he can shoot the mid-range jumper. He’s a much smarter player than Ross, demonstrating much better shot selection, and the ability to spread out the floor, suck in the defense and kick it out to the perimeter for open looks.
So what does the Raptors lineup look like now? If you’re Casey, there’s certainly plenty of palatable options. He will likely go with Lowry and DeRozan, with Carroll, Ibaka and Valanciunas up front at the 3, 4 and 5 spots respectively. Off the bench, Cory Joseph and Norman Powell take the backcourt, with Nogueira and rookie Jakub Poeltl taking over 4 and 5 duties while Patterson is out. DeRozan will likely see minutes at small forward to give Carroll a rest. Carroll has been sensational of late, frustrating the opposing offence to no end while sinking multiple threes a game. We are finally seeing the Carroll from Atlanta who contained King James—to the extent that King James can be contained that is. The defensive begins and ends with this man—between him and Ibaka, the Raptors’ defense should be much more consistent.
The Raptors should be a changed team coming out of the all-star break. They start off with a home game against division rival Boston Celtics at the ACC this Friday, very much a must-win. The Raptors are sitting four games back of the Celtics and seven back of the Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers. If the playoffs started today, the Raptors would face the red-hot Atlanta Hawks, with home-court advantage. If the past is any indication, the Raptors will need home court advantage in the first two rounds to make it back to the Conference Finals. They’ll need to earn it with defense, quality shot selection and a hungry, serious, and focused attitude. They have the tools, the coaching and the capability. Let’s see if they can make good on it.