Raptors get:?Forward Serge Ibaka
Toronto Raptors: A-
Over the past 10 days, with Patrick Patterson sidelined by a knee contusion, the Raptors' power forward spot has probably been the single weakest position for any contender.
On Sunday against the Detroit Pistons, Toronto coach Dwane Casey resorted to starting rookie center Jakob Poeltl alongside fellow 7-footer Jonas Valanciunas, with yet another 7-footer ( Lucas Nogueira) as the backup 4. Pistons forward Tobias Harris lit up the bigger defenders for 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting as Detroit rallied from a 16-point deficit after three quarters to hand the Raptors their 10th loss in the last 14 games.
Something had to be done, and with Paul Millsap not going anywhere (according to the Hawks), Ibaka was the best power forward on the market. I like the aggressiveness of Toronto's move because despite the team's slide, which has dropped the Raptors into a tie with Millsap's Hawks for fourth in the East, they still have a better point differential (plus-4.4 points per game) than any team in the conference save the Cleveland Cavaliers (plus-5.3) -- who are dealing with their own slump and just lost Kevin Love for the next six weeks to knee surgery.
When it comes to assessing teams, observers tend to put too much weight on how they've played recently and don't place enough importance on how well they've played overall. That and the superior predictive power of point differential as compared to record are why ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI) still has Toronto as the East's second-best team, within striking distance of the Cavaliers.
Those wins and losses still count, so the Raptors will have a hard time making up the six games by which they trail Cleveland unless the Cavaliers bottom out without Love. And the Boston Celtics, four games ahead in the standings, will also be tough to catch. At this point, the best likely scenario for Toronto would be passing the Washington Wizards -- who play 18 of their remaining 28 games on the road -- for third while Cleveland hangs on to first, setting up a potential Celtics-Raptors matchup in the conference semifinals.
Adding Ibaka certainly gives Toronto a better chance in that hypothetical series. They've struggled all season -- not just the past week -- to fill the minutes Patterson doesn't play at power forward. Per NBA.com/Stats, the Raptors have been outscored this season with Patterson on the bench (minus-0.5 net rating) and morph into an elite team (plus-13.6 net rating) with him on the court.
While Patterson is an underrated role player, having one of the league's largest on-court/off-court differentials speaks to the weakness of Toronto's other options at the position. Jared Sullinger began training camp as the starting power forward, but after a foot injury caused him to gain weight, any hope he had of defending stretch 4s is now a thing of the past. Defenses don't respect rookie Pascal Siakam, and Poeltl and Nogueira bring the same spacing issues playing out of position.
So merely adding a competent power forward would be a major upgrade for the Raptors. Ibaka is better than that. His 3-point shooting (he's making a career-high 38.8 percent beyond the arc this season and is a 36.5 percent career shooter) will open up the floor for guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry as Patterson (36.6 percent career from 3) does. And though Ibaka is no longer the elite shot-blocker he was in his younger, more athletic days, he can still help the Raptors with secondary rim protection.
Toronto did have to give up a rotation piece in Ross, a part of the team's effective bench units. Come playoff time, however, the Raptors were unlikely to have enough wing minutes for both Ross and Norman Powell to be rotation regulars. Powell is younger and cheaper, and his development surely made it easier for Toronto to part with Ross.
I'm inclined to believe this trade makes the Raptors the East's second-best team behind the Cavaliers and dramatically improves their chances of reaching the conference finals for the second straight year. Will it be enough to compete with Cleveland? That's tougher to say, but Ibaka certainly gives Casey more options for matching up with the Cavaliers' smaller lineups that were devastatingly effective in last year's East finals matchup. Toronto might well end up finishing games with Ibaka and Patterson as its frontcourt, putting five shooters on the court and improving the chances of staying with Cleveland's shooters.
Things get trickier going forward, with both Ibaka and Patterson as unrestricted free agents this summer. Dealing Ross' $10.5 million salary gives the Raptors a bit more flexibility, but maxing out Lowry would put them within striking distance of the luxury tax before attempting to re-sign either Ibaka or Patterson.
A source told ESPN that Toronto is confident of re-signing Ibaka. Perhaps that means letting Patterson go if the market gets too hot for a player who will be in his 30s by the end of a four-year contract. Or maybe the Raptors plan to re-sign both players and pay up to keep the best run in franchise history going.
Either way, the price was good for a rental. Ross is a useful bench piece but doesn't have much value above and beyond his salary and the first-round pick Toronto will give up -- the worse of its own first-rounder and one belonging to the LA Clippers, per Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical -- will surely be in the 20s, and possibly in the late 20s.
If Ibaka means the difference between getting to the conference finals and falling short, the Raptors won't regret that at all.
By this point, you've already read approximately 8,000 tweets noting the Magic effectively traded Victor Oladipo and the No. 11 pick in the 2016 NBA draft (used by the Oklahoma City Thunder to take Domantas Sabonis) in exchange for Ross and a pick that's certain to be in the 20s.
Obviously, nobody would make that trade if presented that way, including the Magic. When Orlando acquired Ibaka last summer, it was in the hopes that adding a veteran to the team's young core would accelerate its development into playoff contenders. Your mileage may vary on that logic, but the plan was never to flip Ibaka again before he hit free agency. That only became reality when the Magic flopped and the possibility of Ibaka leaving as an unrestricted free agent proved a concern.
So as I do with all trade grades, I'm not going to grade Orlando's return in the context of what the team gave up to get Ibaka -- a sunk cost at this point -- but only in terms of how it compares to two possibilities: (a) keeping Ibaka and letting things play out and (b) the alternative offers the Magic could have gotten.
I'm dubious Ibaka's value around the league was all that high, as ESPN's Zach Lowe suggested on Twitter. After all, for many teams he'd be nothing but a rental, and even if Toronto (or another possible suitor) re-signs him, it will be at market value rather than his current value $12.35 million salary.
Beyond that, Ibaka's value has been tarnished from its peak. His block rate has declined by more than half from its league-leading heights and Ibaka was unable to make much of a difference for Orlando defensively.
My read is a first-round pick and matching salary was about what the Magic should have expected from an Ibaka trade. Because Orlando is getting the worse of the two picks the Raptors owned, there's little upside to this first-rounder, so much of the analysis of this trade comes down to whether Ross is more valuable than an expiring contract.
To that question, I'd offer a tentative yes. Ross has become a more reliable defender, and while he's unlikely to ever be much more than a 3-point shooter on offense, that makes him a useful bench piece getting paid like it (Ross will make $10.5 million each of the next two years). He's also precisely the kind of role player the Magic could use on the wing, and swapping him for Ibaka allows Orlando to move Aaron Gordon back to power forward -- perhaps the best part of this deal from the Magic's perspective.
Maybe a better offer for Ibaka would have materialized before the deadline. But as compared to stubbornly keeping Ibaka because his value was lower than the value of what Orlando gave up to get him, this trade was a good move.