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Toronto wins the trade deadline and moves into the circle of contenders

Serge Ibaka has catapulted the Raptors into Finals contention. (Image: Augustas Didžgalvis CC BY-SA 3.0)
Expert
23rd February, 2017
5

The NBA trade deadline is a strange land, a place where PJ Tucker can be more important than DeMarcus Cousins.

There was a lot of sound and fury at this deadline, most of it signifying nothing (good afternoon, Roy Hibbert). But moves were also made that will affect the NBA’s landscape for years to come. The one compliment that you can give the Sacramento Kings is that at least their idiocy is profound enough to cause a ripple.

In the scheme of 2017, though, the only team who did anything meaningful at the deadline was the Raptors. By acquiring Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott in exchange for… well, not much, the Thunder increased their ceiling from ‘team that loses in seven in Round 1′ to ‘team that gets swept in Round 2′. Toronto, on the other hand, moved from a team that couldn’t make the Finals to one that could.

The Cavs are wounded, the Wizards are shallow, the Celtics have their eyes on the future (even if, perhaps, their feet should be more planted in the present – Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford aren’t getting any younger) and the Hawks and Pacers aren’t very good. Beyond the perpetual LeBron-sized caveat, the East is wide open.

Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James

Cleveland isn’t exactly there for the taking, but while the idea of them not making the Finals was something to be scoffed at on Christmas, now it warrants a second glance. Kevin Love is out until the eve of the playoffs, could be out longer, and likely won’t be the same when he gets back. JR Smith hasn’t played in two months and the Cavs aren’t the same force without him at full strength.

James is playing an absurd amount of minutes, and the beauty of the NBA, for the fanciful chasing pack, is that you’re only ever an ankle sprain away from life getting real interesting.

That’s the bet the Raptors are making. That if fortune smiles upon them in May, they’ll be firmly enough on their feet to sail to the finish line, Steven Bradbury-style.

A week ago, Toronto was in free-fall, a briefly historic offence cratering, and an already suspect defence haemorrhaging points. Once a team with designs on the number one seed, the Raptors had collapsed to 32-24 after a 4-11 streak that left them in the fifth seed, behind Atlanta, a team ambivalent about winning.

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The future, with Kyle Lowry about to turn 31, was murky, the past was woeful, and the present had gone from a hopeful probable nothing to a bleak, definitive nothing. Something had to be done. And then it was.

Masai Ujiri, the James Dolan tormentor (and thus, a ‘good person’), swung two deals that catapult the Raptors back into contention without sacrificing any significant assets. Toronto gained Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker for the price of Terrence Ross (a fine, totally unremarkable seventh-man gunner), Jared Sullinger (not good at basketball), a late first round pick and a pair of seconds.

Toronto’s biggest problem heading into the playoffs was they had no answer for LeBron. Nobody has an answer for the King, but Toronto’s attempts at formulating one have been particularly pitiful. A hobbled DeMarre Carroll (he looks like he’s just never going to be the same again) had no chance of obstructing James, and once James did whatever he wanted to Carroll, there was no deterrence at the rim.

Serge Ibaka has catapulted the Raptors into Finals contention. (Image: Augustas Didžgalvis CC BY-SA 3.0)

In Tucker, the Raptors now have a big, tough perimeter body they can throw at James. Behind Tucker, Ibaka – sure to be more defensively engaged now that he’s out of the inverse Disneyland that is Orlando – will be waiting at the rim. Toronto still won’t be able to stop James, but now they’ll be able to make him study for the exam, at least.

With their two acquisitions, Toronto have also leapt towards the modern basketball archetype, becoming more rangy, flexible and capable of small-ball. When the Cavs put LeBron at the four and surrounded him with shooting, the Raptors had no chance but to just meekly die. Now, they have a shot at living.

A small-ball frontcourt rotation of Ibaka, Tucker and Patrick Patterson is tantalising, the unicorn model of defence plus floor spacing. Behind them, any three of Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Carroll and Norman Powell (who’s probably just plain better than Ross, anyway), can form a dynamic perimeter partnership. Add in Cory Joseph and Jonas Valanciunas, and the Raptors suddenly go nine-deep in quality rotation players. They’re versatile, deep, long, skilled and tough.

And they’re still probably going to lose to Cleveland. If they take the Cavs to a game seven it will still be a shock. And that’s fine. But where they had a zero to five per cent chance of beating Cleveland ten days ago, now they might have a 15 to 20 per cent chance. That doesn’t sound like much, but that’s what the NBA is all about. You play to make the Finals, you play for the chance to get there.

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Before the Ibaka trade, the Raptors had no chance. Now they do, and the Eastern Conference just got interesting.