With all due respect to Mason Plumlee and Jusuf Nurkic, the Serge Ibaka trade announced on Tuesday was the first major transaction ahead of next week’s deadline. And boy, it might be a doozy. The Raptors had to part ways with a serviceable and productive swing-man in Terrence Ross, but what they got in return has the potential to significantly transform the Eastern Conference landscape this season and beyond.
After a nearly two-year stranglehold on the East’s No. 2 seed, Toronto has slipped all the way to fifth recently as other up-and-coming teams – namely the Celtics, Wizards, and somewhat shockingly the Hawks – have emerged as viable threats, not just to the Raptors but to the suddenly-reeling Cavs as well. Toronto has lost two in a row and have won just four of their last 10.
Despite their emergence in the East, there’s been a palpable sense that the Raptors are still one or two moves away from legitimately being able to challenge the Cavs. Beyond their two-headed hydra of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, it’s a roster primarily filled with role players and tertiary stars.
With Ibaka, they couldn’t have asked for a better fit. They’ve been in desperate need of a versatile big man who can stretch the floor, defend multiple positions, and protect the rim. Ibaka can also easily play alongside Jonas Valanciunas and slide over to center when Toronto wants to go small, and he’s precisely the defender they need to match up against other stud front-court players like Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Marcin Gortat, and Kevin Love.