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Serge Ibaka’s departure a heavy blow to Raptors’ championship aspirations

For now the main points are few and the circumstances not fully understood, however on the identical day the Toronto Raptors had been in a position to retain their free-agent level guard, they misplaced their most viable large man.

The enthusiasm that greeted information Saturday morning that Fred VanVleet had re-signed with Toronto was tempered when Serge Ibaka signed with the Los Angeles Clippers for a two-year deal value a reported $19 million late on Saturday evening.

The transfer — which was sudden — leaves the Raptors with out one other member of their championship core, one of the crucial vibrant gamers in franchise historical past, and for the second and not using a viable centre below contract.

“We’ll be okay,” was Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s textual content message shortly after the deal was reported.

Ujiri and Raptors normal supervisor Bobby Webster deserve greater than the advantage of the doubt at this stage, given they’ve seven straight playoff appearances to their credit score to not point out the 2019 title. But it’s arduous to spin the notion of Ibaka leaving as something aside from a heavy blow to a crew hoping to compete for championships.

For the second Ibaka’s mixture of floor-spreading taking pictures and defensive skill appears troublesome to exchange.

Given that the Raptors’ different incumbent centre, Marc Gasol, is a free agent garnering his share of curiosity elsewhere and the one different bigs on the roster are an under-sized Chris Boucher — who has by no means performed regular NBA minutes — and second-year Dewan Hernandez, a long-term challenge at finest, Ujiri’s definition of ‘okay’ is likely to be relative.

What’s not arduous to argue is that by the point Ibaka was prepared to depart he was on his option to turning into a people hero in Toronto.

The slick-shooting centre with the chiselled body and cheekbones to match had morphed from distant and taciturn early in his tour with a pair of weak playoff performances to his title to unfastened and free and one of many Raptors’ most essential playoff heroes. His final video games for Toronto had been a few of his easiest.

He performed right here components of 4 seasons after arriving from the Orlando Magic on the commerce deadline in 2017 and appeared to enhance in delicate and not-so-subtle methods every year — no small feat for somebody with that {many professional} miles on their tires.

Last 12 months was his 11th season and may need been his finest — he averaged 20 factors and 11 rebounds a recreation on a per/36-minute foundation, each profession highs — and shot 39 per cent from three on practically 5 makes an attempt per recreation.

He was higher as a starter — taking pictures 43.7 per cent from three in 27 video games in that position — and was even higher within the playoffs the place he shot 57 per cent from the ground, 51.1 per cent from deep and was one of many Raptors’ few dependable choices as Toronto’s offence floor to a halt within the second spherical towards Boston.

But so full was Ibaka’s transformation as a Raptor that it was his off-the-floor presence that so many followers had been mourning when information broke that he was reuniting with Fun Guy Kawhi Leonard — ‘What it do baby’ — to take a run at one other ring with the Los Angeles Clippers.

There was his must-see How Hungry Are You cooking exhibits the place he served company some really disturbing dishes, together with beef penis pizza, memorably, to Leonard. No arduous emotions, apparently.

There was How Bored Are You, when he lit up the darkish days of quarantine for therefore many from his personal locked-down life — albeit from a a lot nicer residence than most. And there was Avec Classe — the YouTube collection the place the fashion-forward Ibaka invited teammates for a makeover, with often hilarious outcomes and viral arguments about scarves.

As a Raptor he grew to become an individual and participant in full, it appeared.

“… He’s more confident,” Kyle Lowry noticed after I interviewed him after he attended a documentary Ibaka produced about his unbelievable journey from the streets of Brazzaville, Congo, to the Raptors championship parade. “You win a championship and things like that happen. You’re able to go out into other avenues. I think winning a championship gave him a bigger stage to promote his continent, his people, and he’s doing that even more now.”

In that context a tour by Los Angeles will swimsuit Ibaka nicely — he’s acquired rather a lot to supply on and off the ground. If he may help lead the Clippers to their first-ever title, his platform will solely develop.

But the Raptors downside is what he leaves behind. If not Ibaka or Gasol — or even when Gasol returns, given how a lot the Spanish veteran struggled in 2019-20 — then who? Then what?

There are choices accessible and the Raptors can supply the complete mid-level ($9.three million for one 12 months or probably $39 million over 4) if they need to.

Could Aron Baynes, the bruising Suns centre who has just lately developed a satisfactory three-point shot be enticed for one 12 months of the mid-level ($9.three million) — that is likely to be optimistic. Former Raptor Bismack Biyombo would in all probability be cheaper and would fill a gap defensively even when the offensively challenged large man would possibly create one on the opposite finish. Hassan Whiteside can block pictures and rebound with the most effective of them, however appears to create drama at each cease. He’s as large as large our bodies get.

Perhaps the Raptors’ finest choices is likely to be extra small lineups, with both Pascal Siakam and/or OG Anunoby logging extra minutes because the theoretical centre in five-out units which are turning into increasingly frequent. There had been some promising indicators of that in the course of the playoffs.

The Raptors — Ujiri, Webster and head coach Nick Nurse — usually determine issues out.

That’s the reassuring half. But for the second shedding Ibaka looks as if the alternative of okay, and the way he carried out on the ground was solely half of it.

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