Serge Ibaka May Be the Missing Piece to the Raptors' Puzzle
During the holiday season, before the calendar struck 2017, Toronto Raptors were humming along.
NBA heads were marveling at their offensive efficiency being the best of all-time. Through 40 games, Toronto boasted an offensive rating of 113.6, best in the league, on their way to a 27-13 record. Their defense was good for middle of the pack (16th) at a rating of 105.6. The plus-8.0 net rating was good for third in the league, leading many to start asking (prematurely) if they can dethrone the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East.
But like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner, Toronto kept on running full speed but ran off the cliff while waving at the screen.
Simply put, the Raptors have been downright bad as of late.
My, how times have changed.
After the 27-13 start, Toronto has gone 6-11 over their last 17 games. They have seen both their offensive rating (104.4) and defensive rating (106.7) drop significantly. The net rating of minus-2.3 is 17th in the league.
Problematically, there is no one thing Toronto needs to change to right the ship. Rather, it's more a myriad of faults.
The NBA season is a grind, a war of attrition. Injuries happen, and they struck Toronto at a bad time. DeMar DeRozan, the team's leading scorer and second-best player, has been in and out of the lineup since spraining his ankle, although he seems to be back for good, playing 38 minutes in four straight games before his final game entering the break.
DeRozan has been a revelation this season, scoring 27.3 points per game. He and the presence of fellow star Kyle Lowry may be masking a flawed roster.
Over the last 17 games, Toronto has seen their scoring output drop from 111.3 points per game on 47.1% from the field (38.7% from three-point range) to 101.8 points per game on 44.7% from the field (33.3% from three).
A glaring weakness has been outside shooting. DeMarre Carroll, who was brought in to be a three-and-defense guy has not lived up to the role this season. On 4.7 three-point attempts per game, he's shooting 35.2%.
While DeRozan is not a good three-point shooter (25.3%), he takes pressure off of role players because he scores in bunches, sometimes warranting a double team. There’s value in volume scorers when they are creating wide open shots for players who cannot create for themselves.
Ready for a Serge
If you are a Raptors fan, you have good reason to be happy about the trade.
Lowry -- who is a free agent after next year -- is a star, and keeping him should be the top priority. Trading for Ibaka shows that the front office is all in on winning now. Ibaka has stretched his game out to the three-point line this season, seeing 30.4% of his shots behind the arc.
With the ability of DeRozan and Lowry to get to the cup, Ibaka figures to make his offensive impact by creating even more driving lanes for the backcourt duo. Defenses have to respect Ibaka’s perimeter shooting. Per NBA.com, Ibaka shot 37.2% on catch-and-shoot treys while in Orlando.
Then there are Ibaka's obvious contributions on the defensive end. Parting ways with young guys like Ross is never easy, but Ibaka gives Toronto some rim protection they desperately needed. Ibaka ranks 11th in the league in blocks this season at 1.6 per game, and he should provide Toronto with a much-needed two-way contribution Ross was not able to provide.
Trading away Ross puts a bit more pressure on Norman Powell, a 23-year-old, second-year player, to back up DeRozan. Toronto has had Powell guarding the point guards as of late, and he is a capable outside shooter (34.3%).
An unsung hero for Toronto this season has been Patrick Patterson. Per NBA.com, when Patterson is on the floor, the Raptors are outscoring opponents by a whopping 13.6 points per 100 possessions. The problem is that he has been in and out of the lineup the last month and a half due to soreness in his knee.
When Lowry and Patterson share the floor, they are outscoring opposing teams by 18.9 points per possession.
In Ibaka, Toronto is getting a better rim protector and a more reliable outside shooter: essentially an upgraded Patterson. Adding Ibaka allows the Raptors to juggle lineups so that either Ibaka or Patterson is on the court at all times. In some cases at the end of games, Toronto can experiment with having Patterson at the four while Ibaka anchors the five.
Kevin Love's injury breathes fresh air into the new-look Raptors, and that may be all they need to make a run at the Finals. Our algorithm sees them winning the title 7.3% of the time, the fourth-best odds in the NBA.