We have our first potential balance of power shifting trade of trade deadline season, with The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski reporting the Orlando Magic have traded impending unrestricted free agent power forward Serge Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors for reserve shooter Terrence Ross and the lesser of Toronto’s own 2017 first round pick and the Los Angeles Clippers’ 2017 first round pick.
It’s a calculated move from noted dealer Masai Ujiri from a cost/benefit perspective, only parting with a low first round pick and Ross, an inferior rotation wing to Norman Powell, for Ibaka’s starting caliber contribution at the four.
Toronto’s motivation to strike a trade of this nature was obvious. After a thunderous start to the season, the Raptors have regressed of late post DeMar DeRozan injury, sporting just a 2-and-8 record over a recent stint of ten games. The Raptors still boast the second best point differential in the Eastern Conference and the second best offense in basketball, which will get a lift with DeRozan’s recent return, but like basically any non-Golden State Warriors squad, it’s been a flawed roster.
The biggest need area for Toronto has long been at the four position. The Raptors have cycled through various options this season, with energetic rookie Pascal Siakam starting the season manning the position. You just aren’t beating the Cleveland Cavaliers with a non-offensive threat like Siakam as a starter. No one guards him. Patrick Patterson, Toronto’s best four option, is better suited for a bench role with his spacing ability and plus feet defending the perimeter, but he’s a dreadful rebounder who lacks the advanced scoring and playmaking to be a starting level threat in an uphill battle series. Toronto has also gone small with DeMarre Carroll at the four, which allows the Raptors to get Norman Powell on the floor more, who at this point is a better player than Carroll, presenting another option. In the East the name of the game is creating a roster that can beat LeBron James, and right now the Raptors lack the firepower from the 4 spot to do so.
Paul Millsap was the obvious name to monitor as a potential true difference-maker for the Raptors as the deadline approached. The way to beat the Cavaliers is to try to mitigate the number of shooters, especially from the big positions, that Cleveland can put on the floor at once. If the Cavaliers can get away with Kevin Love and Channing Frye at the four and five paired with Kyrie Irving and either J.R. Smith or Kyle Korver surrounding James, that kind of spacing around the best playmaker of all time is unguardable. The way to attack that is have either bigs who can punish those lineups in the post and also not take anything off the table defensively, or have the perimeter handling to exploit that lack of mobility in space in pick-and-roll. Millsap is one of the few bigs who fit the former mold. The problem for the Atlanta Hawks teams in the past was that Al Horford couldn’t abuse those lineups enough inside to exploit Cleveland.
Serge Ibaka was perhaps Toronto’s backup plan, and likely came at a much cheaper cost than Millsap would have. Ibaka doesn’t move the needle for Toronto as much as Millsap’s two-way playmaking would against Cleveland, but he affords a different kind of value.
So just what exactly is Toronto getting with Ibaka? Ibaka offers the Raptors a stretch element at the four and five, freeing up Lowry and DeRozan more in pick-and-rolls with bigs defending the screen having to give Ibaka more gravitational credit popping out as a shooter. Despite his limitations as a rebounder and playmaker, Ibaka is a rare unicorn archetype who can stretch the floor beyond the 3-point line and protect the rim. He’s lost some athleticism, which is reflected in his diminished block totals, but he is shooting a career high from 3 this year on the highest volume of his career. He again generates some gravity as a pick-and-pop shooting threat, a huge plus especially combating ICE coverage, and his impact becomes sizable when allowed to play center minutes and draw out opposing fives away from the rim.
Toronto was the obvious short-term fit for Ibaka, who are able to harness his current value this year in a playoff run. Acquiring Ibaka gives the Raptors incredible lineup flexibility in the front court with the ability to start Ibaka as a spacer next to plodder Jonas Valanciunas and then slide him over to the five paired with Patrick Patterson to afford more perimeter defense and incredible spacing (albeit taking a lot of rebounding off the table).
Long term, there’s also 2017 free agency ramifications to consider for Toronto. Projected to operate over the cap, the Raptors acquire Ibaka’s full qualifying rights in the trade, permitting them to re-sign him over the cap, a crucial component. Ibaka has a cap hold of $18,375,000, and is eligible for a tier two max salary this offseason, accruing eight years of service at the time, rendering his starting salary (if given a max deal) at $30,600,000, or a max of $177,480,000 over five years, although he’s unlikely to see that level of coin. Toronto also obtains via full qualify rights and the ability to offer Ibaka a fifth year.
The Raptors are facing impending luxury tax complications however. They have $76,749,940 committed to nine guaranteed contracts this offseason, but that doesn’t include Lowry, Ibaka, or Patterson’s upcoming free agency. Lowry, about to turn 31, is eligible for a tier three max contract of five years, $207,060,000 (!!!!!), one that he will almost certainly get (or close to it). Pair that with either Patterson or Ibaka netting a sizable deal and the Raptors will already eclipse the $122 million luxury tax threshold. The Raptors will likely have to tinker with their roster, shedding either Valanciunas or Carroll this offseason, but that task comes secondary to Toronto’s primary motivator in this deal, which is to improve short term.
There are also issues of course re-signing Ibaka, as we don’t know his actual age, and his athletic regression doesn’t do anything to quiet that worry. But even if Ibaka is just a rental for the Raptors the price is still more than justifiable.
As for the Orlando Magic, after parting with a high price for Ibaka last offseason in sending out Victor Oladipo and 11th overall pick Domantas Sabonis, the Magic essentially swapped the aforementioned two for Ross and a low first rounder in totality, unquestionably a downgrade. Orlando’s offseason, with the veteran signings of Bismack Biyombo and Jeff Green, was designed around a last ditch playoff run to salvage the jobs of general manager Rob Hennigan and company, now in year five of their rebuild. The roster fit with a glutton of big men and lack of shooting and perimeter creation has predictably backfired, pushing Orlando to cut bait on Ibaka for whatever they could get.
Currently possessing the fourth best odds in the lottery and seven games back of the eighth seed in the East, the Magic are belly up floundering entering the stretch run, and swapping Ibaka for Ross should only help them retain a high pick in a very solid 2017 draft lottery.
Beyond bettering lottery odds, the biggest win for Orlando in this trade is probably clearing up minutes for Aaron Gordon to play the four, his natural position. With Ibaka on the way out Gordon will likely slide to the four, paired with either Nikola Vucevic or Biyombo at the five, with one of the two earning a bench role. Actually allowing Gordon to develop in his natural position should pay dividends down the road.
The Magic also receive in addition to first round pick compensation a $2,250,000 trade exception, the difference between Ibaka’s outgoing salary and Ross’ incoming salary. Orlando also loses $10,500,000 in cap space this summer with Ross’ guaranteed salary, and Ross is locked in at that figure in both 2017-18 and 2018-19, providing Orlando with more shooting over the long-term.
Overall, it’s hard to call this trade anything but a win for Toronto, who acquired a valuable player of need at a very reasonable cost without including their best young trade chip in Powell. The Raptors’ window with Lowry and DeRozan in their respective primes is now, and making a move of this magnitude betters the team’s chances short-term without parting with significant future assets. Does the move vault Toronto over Cleveland in the East. Probably not. But with Kevin Love reportedly out six weeks with a knee injury, it lessens Cleveland’s margin for error if Love’s injury lasts longer or Cleveland suffers another medical blow. Toronto got the best player in the trade, improved their short-term projection and didn’t part with basically anything of significant value to do so. This is a huge win for the North.