Serge Ibaka has led the league in blocks with an absurd 3.7 per game. He’s been an essential piece of an NBA Finals team, and was part of the front-court that nearly ended the 73-win Warriors season before they had a chance to lose to LeBron James. He’s garnered consideration for DPOY, and transformed himself from a raw athlete into one of the league’s best pick n’ pop players. A dunk-contest participant, but also part of the more exclusive “I actually dunked from behind the free throw line” club. He’s been all of these things, but never an All-Star. Now that he’s out of the Western Conference and piecing together terrific finesse and tenacious defense, maybe that can change.
Even though Kyle Lowry has gummed up his All-Star status a bit with his latest shooting slump, it’s still there. It’s there because of his immense importance to the team and his ability to create for others. Kawhi Leonard is a top-5 player in the NBA, but he doesn’t make an offense hum like Lowry does. When Lowry gets considered for an All-Star spot, his playmaking will be front and center in the conversation. Lowry can, of course, get to the All-Star game on his own merits, but it’s worth noting that Ibaka is just as capable of supplying Lowry with assists, as Lowry is supplying Ibaka with shots. Even though Ibaka is third on the team in passes received from Lowry, he’s supplying him with the most assists. Outside of the (somewhat superficial, at least how I’m framing it currently) All-Star case of both these men, Ibaka’s scoring isn’t just for supplying assists, but providing the Raptors with an uber-efficient safety valve.
There’s a marked difference between Pascal Siakam’s 15-points per game and Ibaka’s 16-points per game. Siakam has been more than impressive in transition and capitalizing on mismatches. On top of that, he’s taken considerable strides as a spot-up shooter and iso option. Why then, is Ibaka’s offense – to me, at least – so much more important to the Raptors? Well, Siakam is an incredibly efficient scorer because of the shots he takes, shots that defenses can actually reliably game-plan for. Don’t get me wrong, I love Siakam, he’s incredible, but Ibaka’s half-court proficiency is one of the true consistent parts of the Raptors season. There’s a reason every comment section was filled with people praising Fred VanVleet when he started finding Ibaka on the short-roll, we want to see that happen, it’s a great shot for the Raptors.
Ibaka is shooting an unconscionable 59-percent from mid-range and a career high 77-percent at the rim. Not to mention he’s been a more willing passer than ever before – especially on the short-roll, hello Lucas Nogueira – putting up a career high in assists. The most important part of all this is that a large chunk of this offense is coming out of the half-court. Most teams score efficiently in transition – I’m highlighting Ibaka, not dampening Siakam, I promise – but half-court offense is a different beast. Ibaka has been the life-blood of the Raptors half-court offense this season, bombarding opposing teams with mid-range bombs that can’t really be defended well. When the Raptors offense lacks creativity, Ibaka is a more than reliable option to keep it afloat. Sometimes he’ll even close a game out:
Ibaka isn’t the same player he was in Oklahoma City. His offense has grown and changed, becoming something completely different. Meanwhile, his defense has changed, too. The NBA has changed considerably while Ibaka has been in the league, and a player who used to register 3.7 blocks as a power forward is now claiming 1.3 as a center. The game has both moved away from the rim, and to the rim. The elimination of the shot that Ibaka has become top-tier at, has led to a drop-off in blocks. Ushering in a new regime of rangy and bouncy bigs. Long gone is the day of the plodding center roaming the paint, in their place, extremely athletic and handsome men like Myles Turner and Ibaka. Defenses incentivize bad shots more often than they block good ones, and that’s by design. Ibaka has thrived on the defensive end this year, swinging a handful of games on that end. Most notably, the win against the Milwaukee Bucks, a game where Lowry did not play.
The Raptors are 7-4 without Lowry, 10-2 without Leonard and 2-2 without Ibaka. Granted, 4 games is a small sample size, but it’s certainly worth mentioning. The Raptors are very much Lowry’s team, and Leonard is the unquestioned best player on the roster, but Ibaka’s presence looms large over the success of this squad. Leonard operates as a lone-wolf on offense and defense. In both scenarios he lightens the load on everyone else considerably, but the synergy still needs to come along. Ibaka has immersed himself fully into this teams defense and offense, making sure that a version without him would look odd – and considerably less effective.
As a last point, after all the nefarious rumours about Ibaka’s age, he’s been one of the Raptors healthiest players this year. He also hasn’t played less than 75 games in a year since 2014. The “Ibaka is garbage on back-to-backs” trend has been thrown in the toilet. He’s shooting 58-percent from the field in those games and swatting 1.6 shots per contest. The Raptors have no doubt appreciated his efforts in those games as they’re 8-1 in the games that most teams dread.
Victor Oladipo’s injury plagued year has helped Ibaka’s case and Jimmy Butler’s return to the East has made it a bit tougher. Regardless, Ibaka has been quintessential to the Raptors top-10 offense and defense. A player who’s impact is that large, on one of the league’s 3 best teams should find himself suiting up for the East in February. Ibaka has travelled more than most in his life, he speaks a multitude of languages and he’s never been scared to improve or challenge himself. His opportunity for this honour has never been so pronounced. It’s time Serge Ibaka became an All-Star.
Hope that everyone enjoyed the piece.
Have a blessed day.