While possessing two of the NBA's better centers, the Toronto Raptors lack depth in that area. Is it too late for them to pick up a center?
Love it or loathe it, centers are a dying breed in the NBA. Positionless basketball is the present and likely future, so the big men that roam the paint without rarely drifting past 18 feet are becoming almost prehistoric. Despite that, the Toronto Raptors could well be in the market for a center.
Their season has been plagued with a myriad of niggling injuries lengthy layoffs, but yet, their success, under those circumstances, is almost unparalleled - if not the Milwaukee Bucks' historically good season. Even then, the Raptors have the third-best record in the NBA and have just clinched their seventh-successive playoff berth - a testament to just how talented this team is. Still, the injuries have caused an issue.
The Raptors have two of the better centers in the NBA in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, but both, like most of the roster, have dealt with significant injuries this season. Gasol missed the last 14 games due to a hamstring injury before returning against the Sacramento Kings and, having already missed a further 12 games earlier in the season, has seen his durability come into question.
He's still the domineering force of old in the paint for the Raptors, though, pulling the reigns for the second-best defense in the NBA. His deputy is just as impactful for the Raptors. Serge Ibaka is in the midst of a career-year with the Raptors, averaging a career-high 15.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game, shooting 52-percent from the field and 39-percent from three.
Ibaka, like most of the roster, has missed time already this season and has been on the injury report for the last three games. With Gasol also out during that stretch, the Raptors would roll out lineups without having a true center on the court.
In that time, they've seen Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam all spent meaningful minutes at the five spot. The results were a little mixed. After dropping a game to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Raptors lost Ibaka to injury and then lost their next two games to the Charlotte Hornets and then the Denver Nuggets.
Both Gasol and Ibaka have since returned to the lineup, but it's still worth wondering whether or not the Raptors can pick up a center to fill some emergency minutes.
Is there a need?
As mentioned before, both Ibaka and Gasol have missed significant time this season - a combined 42 games so far. Together, they've missed half a season's worth of games. If there are doubts about their health - especially Gasol's - then you can understand the need to go out and pick up a center.
Gasol is 35 and coming off two hamstring injuries in quick succession. He returned to the lineup against the Sacramento Kings on the first night of a back-to-back before sitting out against the Utah Jazz the following night.
When one or the other is out injured or resting, the burden of the back-up role falls onto the likes of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson - Siakam and Anunoby also split time at the five against the Phoenix Suns and performed admirably.
However, Nikola Jokic was able to manhandle the Raptors during this recent west coast road trip, shooting 8-of-11 from the field and tallying a triple-double. Jokic is a triple-double machine, but he was especially dominant against the center-less Raptors.
Depending on the match-ups, the Raptors could likely find themselves up against Joel Embiid or Brook Lopez at some point in the postseason - both are two of the best centers in the NBA, without a shadow of a doubt. And, if the Raptors are fully healthy or not, both can cause a tremendous amount of issues.
If either Ibaka or Gasol goes down between now and then, the Raptors only have one center heading into those match-ups - that's a worry. If Ibaka were to go down, the Raptors would lose their best rebounder, and if Gasol were to go down then they lose, probably, their most important defender.
The Raptors pack the paint and force teams to take three-pointers - all while defending the perimeter better than any other team in the NBA. The Raptors also give up the second-least amount of points in the paint per game. A lot of that is down to the interior presence of Gasol and Ibaka.
Who is available?
The reason it could be too late for the Raptors to pick up a center is quite simple:
Now that the buyout market has come and gone, the options in free agency are, let's say a little threadbare. This poses a small issue for the Raptors, but if we're being honest, a third-string center isn't likely to play 30 minutes a night. He might not even play 10 minutes a night - it all depends on what can happen down the stretch.
While it isn't the greatest pool of talent, there are some interesting options at play, but really the list isn't long:
Last seen with the Houston Rockets, Nene is long past his prime at the age of 37 but in limited minutes, he could be a decent acquisition for the Toronto Raptors. He's a solid rebounder on both ends of the court and a decent finisher around the rim.
The only concern would be his age. Nene hasn't played since Game 6 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals in last year's playoffs when the Rockets were dispatched by the Golden State Warriors. Nene was restricted to just 7.6 minutes per game in the playoffs, with the Rockets electing to roll with Clint Capela or smaller lineups.
After Nene, the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, who is still rehabbing with the Los Angeles Lakers come to mind. Potentially, someone like Salah Mejri or Kosta Koufos spring to mind, but neither man really excites much.
Maybe that's the point of the role, though. No third-string center is really going to excite or move the needle. But with so few options on the market, the Raptors are far more likely to roll with what they have and pray for the best.
The Raptors probably left it too late to address the situation - or maybe they just never planned on addressing it at all. For now, Gasol and Ibaka will provide more than enough for the Raptors. After that, Nick Nurse probably has a plan.