When Serge Ibaka learned Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster were flying from Chicago to Cancun, Mexico to meet with him on the second day of free agency, the veteran centre didn’t know exactly what to make of it.
After three-and-a-half productive seasons, an NBA championship, and coming off the best season of career, Ibaka figured the Toronto Raptors executive team were using their time unnecessarily.
He knew them, they knew him and most importantly, he badly wanted to stay with a team and in a city where he’d felt at home, on and off the floor.
“Even when my agent told me, ‘The Raptors want to meet with you’ I was like, ‘OK.’ I didn’t really have to think they’d have to meet with me because they know I wanted to stay with the team,” Ibaka said in his first comments since signing as a free agent with the Los Angeles Clippers. “And I know they wanted me… I was like, ‘All right, why do we have to waste this time of them trying to come see me when they know I want to be on the team?’
“I was just surprised.”
He was even more surprised when — after putting up per-minute highs in scoring and rebounding and shooting 39 per cent from deep during the Raptors’ record-setting regular season and then upping his game in the playoffs — the Raptors would only offer the 31-year-old a one-year contract for a reported $12 million.
It was a strangely uncompetitive offer for one of the most versatile big men in basketball who had fielded interest from more than 10 teams on the opening night of free agency. Even though the Raptors had telegraphed their intention to try and keep their cap sheet clean for the off-season of 2021, that the dollar amount wasn’t significantly more than the $9.3 million teams with the mid-level exception available could offer in the first year of a deal didn’t communicate the kind of urgency Ibaka was expecting.
“I didn’t even really think about leaving Toronto, till the end and everything started and we have meetings with Masai and Bobby,” Ibaka said. “It felt like things were not going the same direction we were thinking. I said a lot of times, I’m gonna stay… I wanted to stay on the Raptors, but at the last minute things changed… and me I try to make some last-minute decisions.”
According to league sources, another sticking point was that the Raptors executives were waiting on fellow center Marc Gasol’s decision before revising their offer to Ibaka. After surrendering his starting spot to Gasol midway through the 2018-19 season and playing behind Gasol even as the big Spanish center struggled mightily after the hiatus, Ibaka wasn’t going to play second fiddle again.
“The minute they said that they lost Serge,” the source said. “I really don’t think they did a good job with that.”
Ibaka immediately pivoted and signed a two-year deal worth $18.8 million to rejoin Kawhi Leonard with the Clippers. Gasol ended up signing with the Los Angeles Lakers the following day.
It was a rapid turn of events. Watching from afar was Pascal Siakam, who counted Ibaka as a mentor and is now faced with going into a pivotal season in his own career without the benefit of the veteran big man beside him in the locker room and on the floor, having his back in both venues
“I think obviously, I was surprised. I thought we would keep at least one of the bigs,” said Siakam on a conference call from Tampa, Fla., where the Raptors are gathered in advance of training camp. “I mean, I didn’t expect both [Ibaka and Gasol] to come back but it kind of caught me by surprise a little bit, the fact we didn’t get any of them.
“Again, it is what it is. We love those guys and they made decisions that were best for them and their careers and it just didn’t work out.
“I mean, now, I have to figure out a way to talk a little bit more with Serge gone, Serge was kind of like that voice for most of us sometimes. Just being a leader and different things I have to be better at.”
Getting better was the theme of Siakam’s brief off-season. After a strong start in his first season as the Raptors’ primary offensive weapon — Siakam was averaging 27 points a game with a True Shooting percentage of 58.6 on a usage rate above 30 per cent through the season’s first 11 games — opposing defences adjusted and his productivity wavered at times.
Still, he was voted in as an All-Star game starter and even after he cooled off, he was able to put up 23 points and 7.1 rebounds a game on 45 per cent shooting while maintaining a league-average 36 per cent from deep on six attempts a game, all while being a perfect, switchable piece in head coach Nick Nurse’s multi-pronged defensive approach. In the end, it was enough for him to be voted second-team all-NBA.
It was his play after the league’s four-month hiatus due to the pandemic that was the problem. After being largely inactive, holed up in his Toronto condominium with no access to a gym for nearly two months, Siakam never quite regained his rhythm, though it hardly mattered as the Raptors went 7-1 to close the regular season and swept the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. Then in the second round against a slew of rangy, locked-in Boston Celtics defenders, Siakam played some of the worst basketball of his career as he could only manage 14 points a game on 38 per cent shooting — a big reason the Raptors fell to the Celtics in seven games.
The struggles required Siakam — who is entering the first year of his four-year, $130 million contract — to reflect and adjust.
“I think for me, I mean, obviously, not having the result that we wanted as a team. And then, for me personally, not playing how I wanted to do. For me my summer — or off-season — is always focussed on just going back and better and working on things and making sure that I come back a better player,” he said. “And I think it was no different, but obviously with a little edge, knowing that we didn’t get where we wanted as a team. And then myself, I didn’t play the way that I wanted to, so I think just a little bit more.”
It was the example of veteran teammates like Ibaka that Siakam has drawn inspiration from — their off-the-floor preparation and their leadership qualities.
“From Kyle [Lowry] and Serge and all those guys, just for me, seeing as many years they’ve been playing, that’s amazing for me and something that you have to be inspired to do,” said Siakam. “Also, they always get us together and things like that. There are little things I will definitely learn from them… there are so many great people that were around that I feel I kind of learned from. And the relationship is always there. So you can always talk to them and reach out and figure out how to be better.”
But that relationship will have to be maintained from a distance. And even though Siakam sounded positive about the prospects of teaming with Aron Baynes — who was signed to replace Ibaka — and with the potential of Alex Len and Chris Boucher, who will be given the opportunity to earn the minutes that belonged to Gasol, it’s fair to wonder if the Raptors wouldn’t have been better served by being bolder in their pursuit of Ibaka.
Certainly, Ibaka still sounds like he’s struggling to come to grips with leaving the Raptors even after joining the Clippers — a clear championship contender.
“I enjoyed the games with the guys,” Ibaka said. “I played with two of the best point guards in Kyle and Freddie [VanVleet], my teammates, coaches, organization, even the owner of the team, the fans. On top of that, the last two years I’ve been playing the best basketball of my career,” he said.
“That’s one reason I thought I wasn’t going to leave the Raptors. When the time came to talk about the contract and everything, I was like, ‘Yeah, I just had my best season coming from the bench with limited minutes.’ … And I know Freddie [who signed a four-year deal for $85 million] was priority No. 1. It’s normal, of course. Freddie’s younger than me. He had the best [season of his] career. [But] I thought the Raptors were going to come and really show me and convince me that they wanted me to stay.”
They didn’t though. Webster and Ujiri flew all that way to meet with Ibaka to offer him a one-year deal at barely half of what he’d earned the previous year, even though he’d played the best basketball of his career as a Raptor.
And so he took his talents from Toronto to Hollywood — with a brief stop in Cancun — leaving a hole that Siakam and others will have to fill.