Lewenberg: Toronto Raptors’ frontcourt makeover was necessary but hard to swallow

Lewenberg: Toronto Raptors’ frontcourt makeover was necessary but hard to swallow

TORONTO – The Raptors’ version of the ‘perfect’ off-season was always going to be difficult to execute.

After re-signing Fred VanVleet – their stated top priority, which they checked off the list early on Saturday – they hoped to juggle their short-term goals with their long-term ambitions.

Their intentions are to remain competitive this coming season, that’s no secret, but neither is their stake in what comes next – the highly anticipated summer of 2021.

The Raptors were hoping to run it back for the 2020-21 campaign. They wanted to retain at least one of their free agent big men – Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. But they’ve also committed to maintaining their coveted cap flexibility for next off-season – ensuring that they’ll be able to open up a max slot and be real players in a talented free agent market that could include long-time target and the reigning two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

In negotiations with Ibaka and Gasol, it was clear that they had prioritized the latter (long-term flexibility) over the former (keeping them in Toronto). You can see why that wouldn’t have sat well with the veteran bigs, given their respective contributions to the franchise and its championship run. As expected, both players were offered one-year deals.

So, for the second straight year, two key members of Toronto’s title-winning team are headed to Los Angeles. Ibaka is joining Kawhi Leonard with the Clippers, who gave him a multi-year commitment – a reported $19 million over two seasons, with an option to re-enter the market next summer. Gasol is Lakers bound and – at age 35, turning 36 one month into the campaign – he’ll get the opportunity to chase another ring, this time alongside LeBron James.

The Raptors knew this was a very realistic possibility – that their centre tandem could wind up being the casualty of their bold long-term planning. They understood that they might have to take a small step back in the interim in order to take a big step forward. And, make no mistake, that’s what this is.

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Toronto will miss Ibaka and Gasol, both on and off the court.

Ibaka spent parts of four seasons with the Raptors. His tenure got off to a rocky start, but after some self-reflection and plenty of hard work – he’s routinely the last player in the gym following practices – he began to find his footing.

Although he had been a starter for the bulk of his professional career, Ibaka accepted and ultimately embraced a new role – shifting to centre full-time and coming off the bench.

His willingness to sacrifice for the team did not go unnoticed in the locker room. Ibaka was beloved by his teammates, mentoring the young players and helping steady the vets. He led by example – few professional athletes work harder or take better care of their bodies than Ibaka – and always held himself accountable.

Through his inspired play, big personality, and the way in which he engaged with fans through social media and his web series – How Hungry Are You? – Ibaka became a staple in the community.

He never used age or experience as an excuse to stop working on his game and getting better. Last season, his 11th in the NBA, was probably his best, averaging a career-high 15.4 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 39 per cent from beyond the arc.

Gasol was the final piece of the Raptors’ championship puzzle. After more than a decade with the Grizzlies, the Spaniard was dealt to Toronto midway through the 2018-19 season, and he fit right into Nick Nurse’s system.

His role was different than the one he played in Memphis, where he was a three-time all-star. Part of that was by design – to complement Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry, among others – and some of it was the result of age, but he had a knack for finding ways to make his presence felt, even if it wasn’t always noticeable to the untrained eye.

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He quickly became the team’s anchor on defence, where his impact was still elite, and his unselfish nature and ability to move the ball opened up Toronto’s offence as they led the league in three-point shooting following the trade.

The Raptors don’t win the championship that year without Ibaka’s standout performances and timely shooting, or Gasol’s lockdown defence – particularly on Joel Embiid in that epic seven-game series against Philly – and calming presence.

There’s no sugar coating it. Losing them hurts, even if it serves a purpose. If, in a year from now, they’re able to pry Antetokounmpo away from Milwaukee, or recruit another star player to add to the young core of Siakam, VanVleet and OG Anunoby, then it will all seem worth it.

In the meantime, the Raptors have cobbled together a stopgap frontcourt that should be serviceable enough to remain competitive during a ‘bridge’ season.

Moments after losing Gasol to the Lakers, Toronto agreed to a two-year, $14.3 million deal with journeyman centre Aron Baynes, according to The Athletic. Minutes later, they re-signed their own restricted free agent, Canadian big man Chris Boucher, to a two-year, $13.5 million contract, per ESPN. The second year on both deals is non-guaranteed, as you might imagine.

Baynes is a solid fit and was easily the best contingency option available. The 33-year-old New Zealand native is known for his toughness and physicality – he’s had some memorable battles with former Raptor Jonas Valanciunas over the years. He’s a good defender, rebounds the ball well, and has recently expanded his range, shooting 35 per cent on four three-point attempts per game last season.

He’s coming off a career year with Phoenix – averaging 11.5 points and 5.6 rebounds in 22.2 minutes per contest – and brings a winning pedigree, having played for some good Celtics teams between 2017-19 and won a championship with Leonard and the Spurs in 2014.

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With the raise, Boucher presumably inherits a bigger role, and after impressing in limited minutes as the third centre last season, it’ll be interesting to see what he can do with more playing time. The 27-year-old, who was born in Saint Lucia but grew up in Montreal, averaged 6.6 points and 4.5 minutes in 13.2 minutes per contest in his third NBA campaign.

He can be erratic, and there’s still some question as to whether his slim, wiry frame will hold up in an expanded role, especially against traditional centres, but he’s got an intriguing set of skills and his per minute production is encouraging.

If you must, you can pencil Baynes in as Toronto’s opening night starter with Boucher backing him up, but we know Nurse isn’t beholden to conventional lineups. Now more than ever before, this is a team that will have to rely on its versatility. Expect to see plenty of small ball – with Siakam or even Anunoby playing the five – and three, or perhaps four, guards on the floor at times.

And there’s still time to add or make changes to the roster before the season tips off on Dec. 22.

The Raptors have also reportedly agreed to terms with DeAndre’ Bembry – a raw but athletic small forward that should give them some more depth on the wing, likely in place of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Depending on what they decide to do with the non-guaranteed contracts of Terence Davis – who is facing seven charges, including two counts of third-degree assault, after an incident involving his girlfriend last month – as well as Dewan Hernandez, they could have up to three more roster spots to fill.​

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