If You Had To Choose - Tucker or Ibaka?

Article Written by Adam Corsair (@ACorsair21)

This whole topic may be a bit surprising for most of you, and I get it. I completely understand that the amount of games since the Players Only Meeting are minimal in comparison to the grand scheme of things. However, the impact that PJ Tucker has made is both noticeable and valuable; to the extent that I'm not beginning to lean towards the direction of hoping the Raptors prioritize resigning him to the team over Serge Ibaka.

I know, I know... "ARE YOU SERIOUS!?" is what you're saying. But don't close out this window just yet. Let me explain.

As many of you have seen, Tucker has been able to help reshape the Raptors from a predominantly offensive-minded team to a much more balanced one; prioritizing defense and toughness in order to position themselves better against the higher echelons of the Eastern Conference. You hear certain words tossed around on the reg when it comes to Tucker's style of play - toughness, gritty, grinder, fearless, aggressive, etc. These are elements that were lacking for the Raptors prior to the acquisition of Tucker at the very last minute of the trade deadline. Before his (re)arrival in Toronto, we more or less forgave the Raptors for their lack of a defensive presence, largely due to how much their offensive abilities seemed to mitigate this woe. With how well Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan played offensively during the first half of the season, we could sort of turn a blind eye to the obvious defensive struggles both players exhibited, as the Raptors were winning games and sitting pretty as the second seed of the East. Yet, when one of those players would miss time due to injury, this glaring hole in the Raptors game was highlighted, and teams were taking full advantage. It was in dire need of being addressed. 

Now, you could argue that, since being acquired via trade, Serge Ibaka helped bring more balance to the Raptors by adding an element of defense that they didn't have prior. You wouldn't be wrong, either. In no way do I discredit the value a player like Ibaka has for the Raptors, as he is undoubtably that power forward that provides the rim protection the Raptors desperately needed since Chris Bosh. However, it's the intangibles that Tucker has provided for this Raptors squad that I believe adds a bit more value than what we've seen from Ibaka.

Before you say it - I definitely do not know the influence that Ibaka has on the Raptors. Also, I don't know if Ibaka provides these same intangibles that Tucker does. This is all true. I'm not in the locker room. I don't attend practices. I don't know what is said during games. I have no idea. It could very well be the case that Ibaka is just as influential - if not more influential - for the Raptors than what we've been told. Giving credit where it's most certainly due, consider this important piece of information via TSN's Josh Lewenberg -

I mean, that's a pretty big deal. Considering that this was a practice in late February, while Ibaka had only been with a Raptors for 10 days since being traded, it's ought to be recognized. Moreover, I'm willing to bet that it wasn't the only time Ibaka had stopped a drill during practice to help improve defensive abilities. I guess what I'm trying to make clear here is - I don't at all think that a player like Ibaka holds zero value off the court for the Raptors. What I am saying is, when weighing out the cost it would take for the Raptors to keep a player like Ibaka, perhaps it's better to spend some of those dollars on a player that won't necessarily command as a high of a pay-day; i.e. PJ Tucker. 

Don't get it twisted here, in no way do I think Tucker is the offensive equivalent of Ibaka. Not at all. The numbers speak for themselves, really. This season, Ibaka is averaging 15 points, 1.7 offensive boards (5.1 defensive boards, though), shooting just shy of 50% from the field (48.3%), while shooting 39% from deep, and averaging 12.5 field goal attempts per game. Comparing this to Tucker's offensive numbers, it's not really close. This season, Tucker has so far averaged 6.7 points, shooting 41.2% from the field, 34.3% from deep, averaging 6 field goal attempts, with 1.5 offensive boards (4.4 defensive) per game. Looking strictly at the numbers, it's hard to disagree that one would rather have the production executed by Ibaka. But when we consider that Ibaka will more than likely cost the Raptors a max contract (or close to it), while also considering that signing Kyle Lowry to a max contract (or close to it) will more than likely be their number one priority in the offseason, it's hard to see both of these things happening, given the Raptors' history. Unless other things happen during the offseason for the Raptors - ::AHEM:: like trading JV ::AHEM:: - it'll be hard for the Raptors to afford the same team they currently have, unless they go over the luxury tax. Going over the luxury tax has yet to be seen in Toronto, so I'm not going to throw this into the equation; yet, I'm not totally discounting it, either. I mean, if the past is a reliable indicator of the future, you can understand why I'd be hesitant to take it into consideration. But I digress...

Should the Raptors be unable to afford Ibaka, the defensive drop-off is considerable. Again, I take nothing away from Ibaka's ability to protect the rim and defend the perimeter and the value he brings to this team. That's not what this is about. However, while fully admitting that I'm assuming he won't cost a max contract, should the Raptors retain PJ Tucker, while finding an affordable power forward in Ibaka's stead, I don't necessarily think that the defensive drop-off would be that bad. Of course, this isn't as easy as it sounds. When looking at the UFA's heading into the offseason, it's not that pretty, in terms of the players that may not cost a max contract. Thus, I can understand why it's seen as a priority by many to resign a reliable power forward that's capable of starting. But, as mentioned, it seems rather difficult when we also prioritize resigning Lowry to the max in order to keep the core of this Raptors team together. I just don't see how signing both Lowry and Ibaka can be done.

But assuming that the Raptors can fill this gap by exploring other avenues (perhaps a trade?), keeping Tucker should be the next priority, after Lowry. His ability to defend while acting like this omnipresent force for the Raptors has both transformed and influenced this team. It's that influence that I think has been the catalyst for the Raptors since acquiring him. Speaking after the Players Only Meeting, Tucker was determined to let his actions speak louder than his words, stating - 

“It’s not about making shots it’s about us having competitive spirit and playing all these games like playoff games[...] A lot of people talked[...] It was a good conversation. Enough talking though. We have 14 games left it’s time to put it to action. It’s time for guys to go out and show that we care and that we care about each other and we want to do something special here. We have the team to do it.”

That, to me, screams leadership and perseverance. It's an element that was seriously lacking and was desperately needed. It's a part of the game that - as talented as they are offensively - Lowry and DeRozan may not be able to provide for the team without a guy like Tucker. Moreover, not only does Tucker influence the team in a verbal aspect, but he also backs up his words on the court and provides an energy that the players around him feed off of. When is the last time you saw DeRozan play the type of defense we saw him play against Chicago? Who was chirping in his ear? In a game that was seen as an absolute "Must-Win" for the Raptors, it was Tucker's influence and voice that lead the charge. It was the small things that made huge differences, like talking on defense, communicating to players and reminding them where to be while imposing himself as a force that wouldn't go away. It was Tucker that neutralized the Raptor-Killer Jimmy Butler, propelling Toronto to their first victory over Chicago after 11 straight losses. These are the things that a defensive specialist, like Tucker, can provide. Simply put, it's unlike anything the Raptors have ever seen before and needs to be kept as long as possible. 

I don't want this to be misread as me implying that the Raptors currently rely on Tucker to the point where he makes or breaks them. I take nothing away from the awesome stretch of games DeMar DeRozan has been able to put together, as he's been nothing short of fantastic. I also take nothing away from players that are slowly finding their stride again, like Patrick Patterson or Norman Powell. Moreover, I take nothing away from players that are slowly making their presence heard for the team, like Delon Wright and, to some degree, Jakob Poeltl. Honestly, the entire team is coming together since the debacle against the Thunder, which is highly encouraging considering the lack of Lowry. I also fully admit that I'm throwing around a lot of assumptions here. Maybe you don't prioritize resigning Lowry as much as I've illustrated here. Or, maybe the Raptors will go over the luxury tax, thereby signing both Lowry and Ibaka to max deals, while also retaining Tucker. There's a whole mess of scenarios that could happen that doesn't necessitate a choice between Ibaka and Tucker. I admit this. I'm just tossing out a thought experiment, asking if you had to choose one, who would it be? This doesn't mean it's a choice the Raptors will be faced with. Maybe it will be, maybe it won't. Lastly, I don't want to disregard the notion that Ibaka is capable of influencing the team in the same way. He very well could be, and perhaps currently is. Perhaps it's just a matter of it not being as talked about and reported. I'm not trying to convince you that Tucker is more valuable than Ibaka is, because I simply don't think this to be so. Basically, I'm considering the cost of what it would take to keep all of these highly valued players. Chances are, the Raptors won't be able to afford it. Therefore, how do you want these dollars to be spent?

Regardless, if there's one player that's soon to become a free agent that I want to be wearing a Toronto Raptors jersey next season not named Kyle Lowry, it's PJ Tucker. 

What do you think? Feel free to leave a comment below to leave your thoughts. Discussion is a good thing. 

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