The Toronto Raptors are really looking forward to this All-star break. Throughout the last 2 months, they’ve fallen into a slump that they just don’t seem to be able to get themselves out of; going 10-13 throughout and 5-5 in their last 10 games. They’ve hit a rough patch that includes 2 lackadaisical losses to a struggling Orlando Magic team, a loss to the Timberwolves, and a loss to the 76ers. They’ve also fallen out of the top 10 in defensive rating and although they still hold the 2nd spot on the offensive end, it just hasn’t been reflecting in their play. Those kind of numbers aren’t the statistics you would expect from a team that has championship aspirations. After making it to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, fans and players won’t want to settle for anything less than a rematch with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This is what ultimately led to General Manager Masai Ujiri stepping in and making a change to a team that seemed to be hanging on by a thread. He traded Terrence Ross and the lesser of their two 2017 1st round picks to the Orlando Magic for Power Forward Serge Ibaka. Ibaka had been on the Raptors radar since last summer, when they tried to trade for him on draft day, but the asking price was just too high for Ujiri. Now, Ibaka comes to a team that has been struggling defensively and has been on the search for a star-caliber player to take over the Power Forward position.
Before the trade, the Raptors all-star duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry had expressed that the Raptors were missing something. After their loss on Sunday to Detroit, both Lowry and DeRozan were adamant that they needed change.
When asked what went wrong down the stretch against the Pistons, Lowry responded openly “Everything. Everything. Keep putting in the same situations over and over and not being successful, something gotta give, something gotta change.” DeRozan went on to echo his teammate’s frustration. When asked what needs to change, DeRozan responded with simply “Something.” He also added that they don’t have too much time to get their act together. “27 more games, that’s going to fly by. We don’t have much time. When it comes to practice time, you know, we have to be able to take things on the go and run with it.”
Lowry and DeRozan knew that the Raptors roster was not enough to take them to the next level, but will this trade make that much of a difference? Was Ibaka the missing link to push the Raptors to the next level? He’s coming to this team after playing well for the Magic, averaging 15.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game while shooting 48% from the field, and 38% from behind the arc. His ability to stretch the floor will definitely give Jonas Valanciunas a lot of room to operate in the paint, and will hopefully bring a defensive intensity that has disappeared from a team that used to be in the top 10 on that end of the floor.
The Raptors defense was never perfect, but their offense is what turned them into a dangerous team. Earlier in the season, when they were playing well, they found success because their offense was absolutely on fire. Lowry and DeRozan were a scoring combination that was hard to keep up with. However, because of their isolation heavy offense, the Raptors have slowly started to deteriorate. They’ve become last in the League for assists which shows that even when Lowry and DeRozan aren’t struggling, the Raptors still resort to isolation heavy basketball. It has won them a fair amount of games but that kind of basketball is easy to defend.
This would mean the main source of Toronto’s problems are both defensive, and offensive. Due to their offense, the Raptors tend to hold the ball instead of moving it which results in a lot of bad possessions. Not trusting the rest of the team on offense only leads to more issues on defense too. The Raptors are 2nd in opponents steals and 4th in opponents points off turnovers, which means that their current efforts only translate into fast-breaks and defensive breakdowns.
DeRozan and Lowry were right, “Something’s gotta give.” However, if that ‘something’ is Ibaka is still up in the air. Don’t get me wrong, Ibaka is a perfect fit for the Raptors—especially right now when they need someone to become a defensive anchor for them. However, I think the change they need is less about DeRozan and Lowry getting more help, and more about coming together and playing as a team. Over the last 2 months, the Raptors have played disappointing basketball. It’s arguably the worst basketball we’ve seen from their core in over 2 and a half years. As the season goes on, the pressure continues to build for this team to get better and play at an elite level every game. With Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka becoming unrestricted free agents this summer, Toronto has a lot of work to do in a very short period of time. With only 25 games left in the season, you can bet the Raptors will make the most out of this All-star break. Let’s hope they get rejuvenated and start moving the ball again.