The finances of sustaining a good team in the cap spike era can be tricky. On the one hand, contracts grandfathered in from the era before the NBA’s new broadcasting deal can present unusual value in their return relative to how much room under the cap they occupy. But as those deals expire—like Serge Ibaka’s contract with the Toronto did at the end of last season—they create a ton of financial pressure. Even keeping a team in place can become incredibly costly, to say nothing of the need to make up ground on the Warriors and Cavs as the definitive favorites in their respective conferences.
Ibaka’s last deal was a four-year extension off his rookie contract worth $49.4 million. On Sunday, the Raptors agreed to pay $65 million over three years just to keep him. That they did suggests confidence in their ability to also re-sign Kyle Lowry. It wouldn’t make much sense to shell out for Ibaka if the Raptors expected to lose their best all-around player. Useful as Ibaka is, he would be decidedly less so for a team remaking itself on the fly after losing one of the principal drivers of its top-heavy offense.
Bringing back both Ibaka and Lowry, however, would surely demand compromises elsewhere. Toronto is essentially at salary cap level now, even before accounting for whatever deal Lowry might get. That puts a trade rumor bulls-eye on the backs of Jonas Valanciunas, DeMarre Carroll, and Cory Joseph – three significant salaries on the Raptors books movable to varying degrees. Valanciunas is the best player among them but can be a tough sell between the specifics of his game and the bloated center market in general. The two full seasons left on Carroll’s deal aren’t enticing enough to unload without some sweetener. Joseph would have a market but might not clear enough salary off the books to justify losing such helpful contributor.
Parting ways with one or some of those players comes priced into Ibaka’s deal just as it will Lowry’s. Patrick Patterson, a fellow Raps free agent, is also all but gone. These are the concessions good teams now have to make to keep their maturing rosters from landing them in luxury tax hell. If it weren’t hard enough to cobble together the exact, hyper-specific personnel necessary to compete with Cleveland, teams must somehow do so before their best players age out of their primes and before the cost of the roster becomes prohibitive.
The reality is that Toronto might be a touch worse as a team next season, even as they try to keep in place. They’re better positioned than most given that the Raps have almost an entire JV team waiting in the wings; any progress from Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Jakob Poetl, Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo, and 2017 draftee OG Anunoby would be welcome. Ibaka should help the Raptors make ends meet by keeping them flexible. Playing Ibaka alongside traditional centers, stretch bigs, and small-ball lineups are all viable options. Whichever course serves Toronto best in a given moment, Ibaka can be a part of it.
Such is the value in Ibaka’s particular skill set. Three-point shooting and rim protection are form-fitting skills, and Ibaka is better than most bigs when it comes to containing smaller players in switch situations. He might never be comfortable making decisions on the move or taking advantage of should-be mismatches. There’s reason for skepticism about Ibaka’s rebounding, too, if he’s forced to play more center minutes than usual. But what Ibaka already does at a high level is valuable enough to serve the Raptors well, particularly when they’ve only committed to a three-year deal. Ibaka’s game is rooted in athleticism, and Toronto protected itself here somewhat by only committing to pay Ibaka big money until around his 31st birthday.
This is still a significant financial investment. It makes sense contextually because it wasn’t as if the Raptors could sign a different player at a similar salary figure. Ibaka is back because Toronto already had his Bird rights, which was part of the motivation for trading for him last season. No matter what you may think of the state of Ibaka’s game, Toronto didn’t exactly have the means to sign a comparable free agent forward while also re-signing Lowry and keeping the team more or less in shape. Management has given this core – already of 50-win quality before Ibaka’s arrival last season – the opportunity to play out the string and see what comes of it. There should be no delusion that even re-signing their best players will get the Raptors anywhere closer to the Cavs’ high-water mark, but there are worse outcomes than keeping a solid (if ill-fated) footing in the East’s competitive hierarchy.