Last offseason flipped the script on what usually happens with championship teams.
As we are witnessing throughout the airing of “The Last Dance,” title winners have been asked and re-asked the same questions over time: How much are you willing to spend to keep a champion intact? How much loyalty does contributing to a winner earn a player or coach from a team? Does management think it is prudent to keep paying those players who might slide into the back half of their careers, or even have to retire?
Notably, Dallas let Tyson Chandler (four years, $58 million) and J.J. Barea (four years, $19 million) leave town the offseason following the Mavericks’ 2011 title. The front office wanted to remain big-game hunters in free agency, and rewarding those contributors themselves would have prevented that. The strategy did not really work out for the Mavericks, which is not to say keeping Chandler and Barea would have been better for the team. Still, losing members of a championship core had to sting for fans.
As we have moved to the player-empowerment era and the formation of super teams, it is stars who have taken more control in free agency. Sure, the Cavaliers were “loyal” to role players such as J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson after their 2016 championship, but that probably would have played out differently if both players hadn’t been signed to Klutch Sports, the player agency of LeBron James’ good friend Rich Paul. And then last summer, the Raptors put out offers at the top of the market to both of their contributing free agents — Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. It was Leonard who decided to leave, with that decision pushing Green to the Los Angeles Lakers.
This offseason is when the Raptors will face questions similar to those Mavericks. Clearly, the Raptors have big hopes for the summer of 2021, when Giannis Antetokounmpo is slated to lead a shiny free-agent class. There are no guarantees when you play that game, but recent history shows that it is the easiest way to get rich quick, as it were. The Raptors nailed the whole long-game thing already, but think how many things had to break right for them to win a title. If you win on that level of free agency, it means you have figured out the most important thing, and just have to nail down the smaller details. No path is perfect, but one is definitely simpler.
To say nothing of fun role players who have established roles with the Raptors this season, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher, the Raptors will have three members of the championship team who will hit unrestricted free agency this offseason: Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. Unlike Leonard, it is safe to assume that all three players would at least strongly consider staying in Toronto with all things being equal. So, should the Raptors make all things equal?
We have talked about VanVleet already, and his case is the most complicated because he will a) earn the biggest annual salary of the three; and b) command the longest term, if he wants it, because of his age.
At the centre spot, it could very well come down to an Ibaka or Gasol scenario, particularly if VanVleet stays in Toronto on an at-market contract. There are plenty of unknown factors, primarily whether either would be more amenable to a one-year deal like the one Kyle Lowry signed in the preseason, thus making them more in sync with the Raptors’ desire to have one foot in the present and one in next summertime. Assuming the cost were the same — another assumption, yes — which big man should the Raptors prioritize?
It’s not Sophie’s Choice, but this would not be a pleasant decision for the Raptors, nor one that their fans would be eager to see the team make. That is why we included it in our survey of Raptors fans. Both centres are productive players, albeit in different ways, and both Ibaka and Gasol are beloved teammates.
At first blush, Ibaka is the safer choice. Gasol turned 35 in January, while Ibaka does not turn 31 until September. (This cuts both ways, as Ibaka might have a more realistic path to a multi-year deal in a market that does not figure to be kind to centres, particularly older ones.) Meanwhile, Ibaka missed 14 of the Raptors 64 games this season, most of which came due to a sprained ankle, a fairly random occurrence that can impact players regardless of age. Gasol missed twice the number of games due to a soft tissue injury to his hamstring, causing his two extended absences. Older players tend to be more prone to suffering soft tissue injuries.
Gasol played a full season and playoffs last year and then a World Championships run that ended with Spain winning it all in the summer. Though there was some talk about Gasol taking some occasional time off early in the season to account for his busy 2019, Ibaka’s early-season injury scuttled those plans. It is impossible to know if a lighter schedule earlier in the first third of the season would have helped Gasol stay healthier — he played in each of the Raptors’ first 26 games, averaging 29 minutes per game — but such a heavy workload was not part of the stated plan going into the season.
Prior to this season, Gasol had missed just 20 games over the previous three seasons, averaging more than 32 minutes per game. Ibaka missed 17 games over the same span, playing fewer minutes. This has been the most time both players have missed in years, in other words. It is possible that Gasol has hit a threshold where his availability will continue to decline in upcoming seasons given his age and the number of minutes he has behind him. At the same time, Gasol has played about 3,800 more NBA minutes than Ibaka when factoring in the playoffs — about two seasons’ worth of time.
Health and age are issues then, but not as big as they might seem in a vacuum, especially when considering the Raptors would prefer to hand out bigger one-year deals versus multi-year deals with smaller average salaries.
Both players have been good and this season, even excellent at times. When looking at each player’s individual production, it is not close. Ibaka has scored nearly twice as many points on a per-minute basis as Gasol, and has outrebounded him, too. As you’d expect, Gasol dishes out far more assists than Ibaka, but it is not as if the Raptors roster lacks talented creators.
And yet, the Raptors’ usual starting lineup — VanVleet, Lowry, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam plus one of the centres — was much better with Gasol than Ibaka. Actually, it was worlds better. Those two lineups were the injury-riddled Raptors’ two most commonly used five-man units, with the group with Ibaka playing 197 minutes over 20 games and the group with Gasol playing 280 minutes over 17 games. (As it reasons, many of those games overlap.) There is no way of getting around it: The lineup was great with Gasol and bad with Ibaka on the floor in his place. Given that the most likely scenario has those four starting regularly for the Raptors next season, the data is very relevant.
Other than offensive rebounding, the Raptors starters performed better at a team level in nearly every meaningful statistic with Gasol on the court instead of Ibaka. Lineup data is not necessarily reliable in terms of its ability to carry over from one season to the next, but it checks out logically given that Gasol’s major advantages over Ibaka, as a playmaker and as a positional defender, are areas where the Raptors were better as a team, too. Again, these are hard decisions. Gasol probably offers the Raptors the higher ceiling for 2020-21, but he presents a greater risk in terms of availability — and maybe production, too. I would probably prioritize keeping him over Ibaka regardless of that, but the choice, should it present itself as such, is anything but simple and is guaranteed to be bittersweet.