Fan Duel Toronto Raptors

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2018-19 Player Preview: Serge Ibaka

Can he bounce back a bit?

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It can be hard to get to a fixed opinion on whether it was a good or a bad season for Serge Ibaka last year, when you read through opinions and evaluations. Given a 3-year, $64 million contract the summer before, the expectations were high, with the team locking in their core to try to win immediately, and Ibaka was clearly intended as a major part of that. With the team winning 59 games, a new franchise record, and looking the part of a contender for much of the season, it would be hard to call it a failure, but the playoff exit in a sweep to the Cleveland Cavaliers(again) makes it hard to consider the season a success, as well.

The best single word to sum up his season would be inconsistent, and the numbers back that up. While he shot 36% from three-point range for the season, it was below 30% in both November and January, and saw a dip again in March, but the better indicator was how much rest the team had going into a given game. Serge struggled on the second night of back-to-backs throughout the season, and saw his rebounding percentage slip as well in those games, down to 10.4% from 12.6% on the season. The difference wasn’t just in the box score, however, as the tired legs were visible in his play, and opponents were frequently able to take advantage of him in those games.

The questions with Ibaka seem to center around what’s being asked of him. He’s a capable enough player, still a solid help defender who can be a shot-blocking presence, and a good enough shooter to create space on the floor, while mobile enough and capable enough of a ball-handler to take advantage of bad closeouts to attack off the bounce, as demonstrated below in the video provided by Cooper Smither. There are plenty of ways that Ibaka can be an effective contributor on the floor, even with him not being the same defensively dominant presence he showed in Oklahoma City earlier in his career.

Last season, the Raptors frequently asked him to be more than that on defense, required him to make up for sloppy point of attack defense with the starters, where he was being asked to cover too much space and make decisions between leaving shooters open on the wing or collapse to cover for penetration, and Ibaka often found himself in no man’s land, not quite recovering in time to provide the needed help, but also not close enough to contest the perimeter shots if the pass was made. Jonas Valanciunas demonstrated the ability to be a solid enough rim protector, but he’s not a mobile center, and he can get in trouble when asked to guard in space. When you put Valanciunas and Ibaka together, what you have is a big man pairing that can reliably hold the line with a capable defense in front of them, but won’t consistently fix problems presented if your defense is porous at other positions.

Where Serge really got into trouble was, though, when he was paired with Jakob Poeltl in the transitional lineups between the starters and the bench. This was a grouping the Raptors went back to over and over again through the season, and it never really clicked. Both big men are at their best as the help defender, and while both excel there, neither is a strong presence on the defensive boards, and they found themselves often being beat when they’d both commit to helping and have no one to cover the board.

The less used look, with Ibaka beside Pascal Siakam, found success for the most part when it was used, and will be a look the Raptors probably look to more this season with Poeltl’s departure, and should again be useful for the Raptors. This, however, is more of a situational lineup, with the two smaller forwards likely to struggle against bigger frontlines.

There is good news here though, in that this year’s Raptors team is better built to emphasize Ibaka’s strengths and put him in positions more frequently where he can succeed. The trade of DeMar DeRozan and Poeltl for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green brought more quality perimeter defenders to the Raptors, which should improve the point of attack defense and let Serge be more of the defensive presence he’s comfortable being, where he doesn’t have to as often hedge to cover potential collapses. As well, when paired with a center, it’ll be either Valanciunas or Greg Monroe, who’s a similar player to JV, a bigger, slower center who is solid on the boards and can allow Ibaka to be the more mobile help defender in the lineup.

There’s a larger conversation that occurs sometimes about his value on the basketball court compared to the size of Ibaka’s contract, and while that’s a legitimate discussion, I’ll leave that for another time. For this season, as long as the Raptors can keep the focus on what Ibaka can provide, and limit the situations where he’s stretched too thin, either through playing too many minutes when the schedule is compressed, or through being asked to do more than what’s in his skillset on the court, they should see a productive player who can help the team build towards another successful season, and hopefully further postseason accomplishments than in years past.

You can keep up with all of our player previews here.