The NBA’s trade season is officially over, and with that comes a renewed sense of optimism surrounding the Toronto Raptors. After a hot start to the season, a brutal stretch beginning in January has the team closer to the middle of the pack than the front in the Eastern Conference playoff race. During this time, it had become increasingly clear from the team’s play that something had gone stale – a concerning turn of events for a group that not long ago sat within striking distance of the Cleveland Cavaliers. For a franchise that has enjoyed its greatest prolonged stretch of success in recent years, the sense of concern among fans and players alike was palpable heading into All-Star Weekend.
With these struggles in mind, Masai Ujiri and his Blackberry Passport tapped into the trade market and came away with some goodies. With last week’s trade for Serge Ibaka, and this afternoon’s buzzer-beating addition of P.J. Tucker, the Raptors front office came away with an enviable haul at a reasonable cost. Let’s take a look at the changes, and how they’ll theoretically affect the remainder of the season.
WHO’S OUT: G/F Terrence “Terry” Ross, PF Jared Sullinger, the less valuable of the Raptors’ two 2017 1st round picks, and the Raptors’ 2017 and 2018 2nd round picks
WHO’S IN: PF/C Serge Ibaka, F P.J. Tucker
After taking stock of the recent personnel changes, there’s a lot to like from the Raptors perspective. First and foremost, the additions of Ibaka and Tucker fill holes in the team’s roster that had been season-long issues. On paper, both players should contribute to improving what has become a predictable offensive team and a mediocre-to-maddening defensive unit.
Ibaka is the big ticket of the two, and for good reason. His ability to space the floor, protect the rim, and provide Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan with a reliable offensive option should give an immediate boost. In a presumed starting lineup with Lowry, DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, and Jonas Valanciunas, Ibaka’s ability to shoot and play off the ball gives DeRozan and JV space to operate in the lane and on the block, and will keep the defense honest as Lowry and DD penetrate. Ibaka is shooting a career high from 3 this season while shooting a higher volume than ever; if he can keep this rate up, we should see a Raptors offense that performs closer to its league-leading form of earlier in the year.
Defensively, Ibaka will allow Dwane Casey to tinker with smaller, more mobile units that are able to contain the dribble and reliably switch without concern. Something along the lines of Lowry-Norman Powell-DeMarre Carroll-Patrick Patterson-Ibaka would be an intriguing group to run out. While he isn’t the terrorizing shot blocker he once was, Ibaka still protects the paint reasonably well, and should be able to provide weakside help that is far superior to anything the Raptors have seen thus far.
Tucker will make his presence felt most at the defensive end. A notoriously tough one-on-one defender, he possesses the strength and determination necessary to at least stand a chance against the more dominant wings in the east. If Tucker can D up, bring intensity to the second unit, and hit the odd corner 3 when called upon, he will add an edge that all serious contenders need in order to succeed.
Beyond their individual impacts, Ibaka and Tucker give Casey a) upgrades in talent to work with, and b) greater versatility when searching for effective lineups to help this team get out of its current funk. When you consider this, and the fact that Ujiri et al. didn’t unnecessarily sacrifice any valuable picks or prospects, it’s safe to say that the Raptors had the most successful trade deadline outside of New Orleans.
The key, now, is for that success to translate to the floor. We can praise how nicely these additions fit this team on paper, but it’s up to Casey to find the lineups that work, and for the players to buy into what the coaching staff is selling. As The Ringer’s Danny Chau noted following the Ibaka deal, Casey’s stale play-calling is partially to blame for the team’s recent struggles. He now has the necessary pieces to play a more versatile, efficient style on both ends of the floor, and to present a greater challenge to the conference elite. How well these pieces fit together will be one of the NBA’s most fascinating storylines heading into the post-season.