Lewenberg: The Toronto Raptors front court makeover was necessary, but hard to swallow

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TORONTO – The Raptors’ version of the ‘perfect’ off season would always be difficult to perform.

After re-signing Fred VanVleet – their declared top priority, which they ticked off the list early on Saturday – they hoped to combine their short-term goals with their long-term ambitions.

Their aim is to remain competitive next season, that’s no secret, but their share of what comes next isn’t the long-awaited summer of 2021 either.

The Raptors hoped to roll it back for the 2020-21 campaign. They wanted to keep at least one of their great men of free agents – Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. But they’ve also committed to maintaining their coveted cap flexibility for the next off season – ensuring they can open a max slot and be real players in a talented free agent market that has a long-term goal and the reigning two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

During the negotiations with Ibaka and Gasol, it was clear that they had prioritized the latter (long-term flexibility) over the former (keeping them in Toronto). You can see why that wouldn’t have been good with the veteran bigs given their respective contributions to the franchise and the championship. As expected, both players got deals for a year.

So for the second year in a row, two key members of Toronto’s title-winning team are heading to Los Angeles. Ibaka joins Kawhi Leonard with the Clippers, who gave him a multi-year commitment – a reported $ 19 million over two seasons, with an option to re-enter the market next summer. Gasol is Lakers bound and – at the age of 35, he turns 36 a month after the campaign – he gets the chance to chase another ring, this time alongside LeBron James.

The Raptors knew this was a very realistic possibility – that their middle tandem could fall victim to their bold long-term planning. They understood that in the meantime, they may have to take a small step back to make a big step forward. And make no mistake, that’s what this is.

Toronto will miss Ibaka and Gasol both on and off the field.

Ibaka spent parts of four seasons with the Raptors. His tenure got off to a rocky start, but after some self-reflection and hard work – he’s routinely the last player in the gym to attend workouts – he started to find his position.

Although he was a starter for most of his professional career, Ibaka accepted a new role and eventually embraced a new role – shifting downtown full time and getting off the couch.

His willingness to sacrifice for the team did not go unnoticed in the locker room. Ibaka was loved by his teammates, he guided the young players and helped keep the vets stable. He set a good example – few professional athletes work harder or take better care of their bodies than Ibaka – and always held himself accountable.

Because of his inspired game, big personality and the way he interacted with fans through social media and his web series – How Hungry Are You? Ibaka became a staple of the community.

He never used age or experience as an excuse to stop working on his game and get better. Last season, his 11th in the NBA, was probably his best, averaging 15.4 points and 8.2 rebounds, while shooting 39 percent from outside the arc.

Gasol was the final piece of the Raptors’ championship puzzle. After more than a decade with the Grizzlies, the Spaniard was handed out to Toronto in the middle of the 2018/19 season, and he was a perfect fit for Nick Nurse’s system.

His role was different from the one he played in Memphis, where he was a star three times. Some of it was inherent in design – to complement Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Kyle Lowry, among others – and some of it was the result of old age, but he had a knack for finding ways to make his presence felt, even if not. always noticeable to the untrained eye.

He soon became the team’s anchor on defense, where his impact was still elite, and his selfless nature and ability to move the ball opened up Toronto’s attack as they led the league in three-point post-trade shootout.

The Raptors wouldn’t win the championship that year without Ibaka’s standout performance and timely shootings, or Gasol’s lockdown defense – most notably against Joel Embiid in that epic seven-game series against Philly – and calming presence.

There is no sugar on it. Losing it hurts, even if it serves a purpose. If they can pry Antetokounmpo out of Milwaukee or recruit another star player to add to the young core of Siakam, VanVleet and OG Anunoby in a year from now, it all seems worth it.

In the meantime, the Raptors have put together an emergency half that should be usable enough to remain competitive during a ‘bridge’ season.

Moments after Gasol’s loss to the Lakers, Toronto agreed to a two-year $ 14.3 million deal with companion center Aron Baynes, The Athletic said. A few minutes later, they signed their own limited free agent, Canadian big man Chris Boucher, again for a two-year $ 13.5 million contract, per ESPN. As you might imagine, the second year is not guaranteed for either deal.

Baynes fits well and was by far the best option available for contingencies. The 33-year-old New Zealand resident is known for his toughness and physicality – he has had some memorable fights with former Raptor Jonas Valanciunas over the years. He is a good defender, bounces the ball well and has recently expanded his range by shooting 35 percent last season on four three-point tries per game.

Coming into a career year at Phoenix – averaging 11.5 points and 5.6 rebounds in 22.2 minutes per game – and with a winning pedigree, he played for some good Celtics teams between 2017-19 and won a championship with Leonard and the Spurs in 2014.

With the raise, Boucher will presumably inherit a bigger role, and after impressing as third center in a limited number of minutes last season, it will be interesting to see what he can do with more playing time. Born in Saint Lucia but raised in Montreal, the 27-year-old averaged 6.6 points and 4.5 minutes in 13.2 minutes per game in his third NBA campaign.

He can be erratic, and it’s still debatable whether his lean, wiry body will hold up in an elaborate role, especially against traditional centers, but he has an intriguing set of skills and his per-minute production is encouraging.

If you have to, you can sign Baynes as Toronto’s opening night starter with Boucher backing him up, but we know Nurse isn’t obligated to conventional lineups. More than ever, this is a team that will have to rely on its versatility. Expect to see a lot of small ball – with Siakam or even Anunoby playing the five – and sometimes three or maybe four guards on the ground.

And there is still time to add or change the roster before the season starts on December 22.

The Raptors have also reportedly agreed with DeAndre ‘Bembry – a raw but athletic little striker who should give them some more depth on the wing, likely instead of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Depending on what they decide to do with Terence Davis’s non-guaranteed contracts – who is facing seven charges, including two charges of third-degree assault, after an incident involving his girlfriend last month – and Dewan Hernandez, they had up to three extra grid places to fill.

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