Trade deadline deals for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker have made the Raptors a deep nasty team and pushed the resurgence of the stand pat Boston Celtics back another season. At least that seems to be the conclusion of Basketball Insiders Cody Taylor, ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski on The Vertical Podcast Trade Deadline Special.
Basketball Insiders – Adding Tucker figures to be a move designed to shore up its perimeter defense. He’s now likely their best defender against LeBron James should the Raptors match up again with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the postseason. By making this move now, the Raptors were perhaps the biggest winners of the trade deadline.
ESPN – Toronto swooped in for both Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, forming a deep, nasty, versatile team that should end up better than Boston even if the Raptors can’t catch up in the standings. It feels like a missed opportunity for Boston to have some fun this season.
The Vertical – Toronto is the team that has made the upgrades. They have struggled here in the latter part before the All-Star break. They have some ground to make up, but just defensively, their ability now against Cleveland in the postseason, Boston in the postseason, they have really helped themselves more than any other team. Certainly in the Eastern Conference.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri pulled the trigger at the trade deadline big-time this season and made the biggest improvements to his roster of anyone in the East. A team that went 22-8 to start the season and then fell apart under the weight of relatively minor injuries to Patrick Patterson, DeMar DeRozan and DeMarre Carroll just got a big boost to their rotation.
“I love this about these two guys added to the group we have, it helps us with toughness,” Ujiri said.
Gone from the rotation is Terrence Ross, quite possibly in the midst of his best season ever, but still maddingly inconsistent and too often failing to live up to his talent. Also gone is the team’s big 2016 free agent addition Jared Sullinger who was still trying to regain his form after missing most of this season with a broken foot, so he won’t be missed on the court.
Inbound is the proven veteran Ibaka, known for his defense and rim protection (90 blocks this season). He should instantly step in as the Raptors starting power forward and second best three-point shooter as well as someone that can score in the paint. Ibaka was leading the Magic with 846 points this season which would put him third on the Raptors, right about where he is expected to be as a scoring option in Toronto and in a role he was very familiar with in OKC.
The upgrade Ibaka brings can’t be overstated. Out of necessity, rookie Pascal Siakam has started 38 games at power forward for Toronto this year averaging 4.8 points and lots of mistakes on defense. He looks like a player with high potential, but he’s got a lot to learn.
The Raptors were thin on the wing to start this season and after trading Ross and prior to acquiring Tucker, they were potentially one injury away from disaster. Tucker likely comes off the bench and his style of play should earn him a super-sub role much like the one Patterson has earned with his tough defense and acceptable three-point shooting. Tucker isn’t a great three-point threat, but he’s good enough to keep defenses honest and good enough on defense to make a difference at the end of games.
“I love his toughness,” Ujiri said about Tucker. “He can defend. He can defend multiple positions. He can shoot the corner three and toughness, we needed to become a tougher team and I think this helps us.”
Also, the injury woes appear to be over for now at least.
Patterson is expected to play in the first game back after the All-Star break and it seemed like the team was holding him out a few extra games just to be sure he’d be ready for the stretch drive to the playoffs. He’ll return to a bench role where he’s been a super-sub in Casey’s rotation.
Carroll was still playing on a sore knee to start the season, but by early January the knee felt good and he was starting to put up some really nice numbers. Then a kick to the head by Pascal Siakam set him back, but he’s since re-found his shooting touch and his confidence and similar to the seven games stretch before the knock on the head, he has averaged 12.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals while shooting 46.4 percent from three over his last half-dozen games.
A turned ankle cost DeRozan a couple of weeks and the Raptors scoring seemed to be sitting out with him, but now he’s back and he’s fine.
Casey has been wanting to tighten up the Raptors rotation and with his new additions, it should come together relatively quickly.
Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas
Cory Joseph, Norman Powell, P.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson, Lucas Nogueira
Fred VanVleet*, Delon Wright, Bruno Caboclo, Pascal Siakam*, Jakob Poeltl*
Potential closing lineup:
Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Tucker/Carroll, Patterson, Ibaka
With a full line-up at his disposal, this is the deepest, most talented and toughest roster Ujiri has ever handed head coach Dwane Casey. However, Ujiri has a word of caution.
“Everything always looks pretty on paper,” Ujiri said. “Now we have to go out and play.”
Ujiri has bought into the concept that this team is close and in a very competitive East, the opportunity to knock off the favorite, but short-handed, Cavaliers is there. He felt the Raptors owed it to their fans, coaches and players to give it their best shot right now.
“The way the East is situated, there’s Cleveland at the top and then there’s 5,6,7 teams that could catch steam at any time and momentum and then whoever does it at the right time, then maybe you find yourselves there,” Ujiri said. “We want to give ourselves the best shot to be there.”
Ujiri has a knack for knowing what to do and then getting it done without sacrificing the things he believes in. Things like keeping and developing his own young players, but still giving his team a chance to win. With the acquisition of Tucker and Ibaka, Ujiri has made the Raptors tougher, deeper and potentially a little nastier just in time to see if this is a group that can go deep into the playoffs and worth becoming a luxury tax team this summer.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.