The Raptors are facing an off-season like no other. They have a handful of free agents to decide on, an uncertain NBA financial picture and a first-round pick in the Nov. 18 draft. This is the third of a six-part series looking at the decisions and options that lie ahead:
It is a vexing problem that Serge Ibaka presents to Raptors management, and how it is dealt with will give a strong indication of which way the franchise is going in the short-term future.
The 31-year-old Ibaka is coming off one of the best seasons of his 11-year NBA career, and he is primed to hit the free-agent market coming off an excellent showing. He averaged a career-high 15.4 points per game, shot an impressive 38.5 per cent from three-point range and provided the Raptors with solid rim protection, even if his perimeter defence may have slowed by a step.
Still, he’s an above-average NBA big man sure to attract interest on the market, even if no one knows for sure what that market is. He said himself that the uncertainty about next season has made thinking about his future futile.
“We don’t know if we’re going to play next season. I don’t really know what is going to happen,” Ibaka said after Toronto’s season ended. “Let’s see what’s going to happen. (I’m) just excited to see my daughter — that’s what’s on my mind — then we’ll see, day by day.”
The best idea from the Raptors’ point of view may be to try to convince Ibaka to take the Kyle Lowry Memorial Golden Handshake, a one-year deal with a raise on his $23.2-million (U.S.) salary from 2019-20.
A deal at, say, $28 million would be a nice thank you for his contribution to a championship run and still preserve the much-desired financial flexibility for team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster in the off-season after the 2020-21 season.
“Well, it’s all communication and how we relate to our players,” Ujiri said. “That is what our jobs are. We have to face them square on and we will deal with them as they come, as we have in the past. We do respect who our players are.
“We have to really attack this head on, and we know where their game is. We know how much they can improve; we try to project that as much as we can. We know where they have come from, too, because we have gone through all these struggles with all these guys and we mutually appreciate that.”
It might be as simple as the Raptors dangling those big-money, one-year deals in front of both Ibaka and Marc Gasol and being willing to live with whoever signs first.
They are certainly different players — Ibaka’s more athletic and instinctual, while Gasol’s ability to anchor both offence and defence is the best of any big man the team has — but it’s hard to envision a scenario where both will come back, unless they’re each willing to take one-year deals.
Even then, it could very well put Toronto into the luxury tax. Money may not be an issue, but long-term development may not be best served by keeping two big men, each in their 30s, on short-term deals.
“We are going to speak to all the agents when the time is right, and speak to all the players when it is right, and we’ll try and figure this out the best way we can,” Ujiri said.
“Yes, there are challenges, but it’s nothing that we haven’t dealt with in the past.”
His teammates seem fine with bringing the two big men back.
“I want them to both be back,” star point guard Kyle Lowry said. “I think those guys have earned contracts. And, I mean, I don’t care about the age thing.”
Ibaka has taken to Toronto well in his relatively short time here, since a trade with Orlando in 2017, and his social justice concerns dovetail perfectly with the organization’s goals. That might give the Raptors a leg-up in pursuit of his basketball talents.
He has been tireless in his desire to promote anti-racism campaigns, not only here but in his native Congo. The platform he has gives him untold reach.
“I don’t like to say proud,” Ibaka said after the season. “Proud is more about ego. I want to say I’m just grateful — grateful for everything we did as an organization — and to be a part of this moment is going to stay forever.”