It’s not Serge Ibaka’s fault.
Ibaka is having arguably the best season in his NBA career. He’s averaging a career-high in points per game (16.0) and rebounds per game (7.8), he’s been the most consistent Raptor all year, and he didn’t say a word when he was told he’d be platooning the starting centre spot during training camp. When most were willing to write him off after he struggled a season ago (especially in a near-disastrous Playoff showing), Ibaka rededicated himself to his game and has been a massive part of Toronto’s best-ever record at the All-Star break.
Even still, he should be moved to the bench. Permanently.
It’s not his fault that Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, and Pascal Siakam are ensconced in starting spots, leaving only centre and shooting guard available to disrupt with an impactful trade deadline deal. It’s not his fault that Marc Gasol was the best player that the Raptors could bring in to juice their run at the NBA Finals, a player that just happens to play Ibaka’s position. It’s not his fault that, after likely earning the full-time starter’s role from Valanciunas despite his imminent return from injury, the Raptors acquired a better player, but sometimes that’s just the way it happens — and when it happens, you start the better player.
Marc Gasol is a tremendous player. You saw glimpses of it in his first game with the Raptors against New York and then you saw the full display against Brooklyn two days later. In 22 minutes against the Nets, Gasol racked up16 points, six rebounds, two assists (which could have been several more if not for Toronto’s inconsistent shooting), a three and a block. More important than the stats, though, was the command he had on both ends (after Nick Nurse implored his reserve unit to get Gasol the ball because he was, you know, the best player on the floor). Gasol made quick reads on offence, smart shifts on defence, and looked every bit All-Star-caliber player that would cost a team three rotation players to acquire.
Not to be outdone, Ibaka also logged 18 and 12 in 26 minutes, but this isn’t about comparing stats or production, because Ibaka has done nothing to warrant moving him to the bench. He’s simply the victim of circumstance where Toronto acquired a better player at his position, and one with a skillset that addresses more needs than Ibaka’s does.
Of late, the Raptors have looked too discombobulated out of the gates in games, and the less said about the offensive composure in crunch time the better. Ibaka isn’t the problem here, exactly, but Gasol can be a huge part of the solution. His control of the game from the high-post is a great way to pick apart defences, control tempo, and ensure that there is movement in the offence rather than the one-pass-and-shoot routines that the team gets stuck in. The things that Ibaka does well, the elbow jumpers and defensive reads, are also skills in Gasol’s possession, so you aren’t really sacrificing anything in this arrangement, except perhaps Ibaka’s pride. What you are gaining, however, both at the start and end of games, is a skillset at both ends that the Raptors haven’t come close to possessing in the team’s modern era.
In an ideal situation, the rotation would work similarly to how Nurse deployed his centres against the Nets, but with the starter/reserve configuration reversed. Gasol should start the game, but be spelled by Ibaka early enough that Ibaka gets to log minutes with Lowry since the two have developed some meaningful chemistry this season. Ibaka then stays in while the rest of the reserve unit trickles in, right through to when the starters retake the court before Gasol comes back to finish the half. Heck, there is no reason that there couldn’t always be another starter on the court with Ibaka, be it Lowry or Siakam, alongside newcomer Jeremy Lin, to ensure there are always multiple passers sharing the floor with the Ibaka, who is at his best when he is fed his offensive looks.
This same rotation can be replicated in the second half, with Gasol finding his way back onto the court at the end of close games to help ensure that the stagnant late-game offence is at least partially run through Gasol; again, to create off-ball movement and to throw another look at defences that are used to watching Leonard try and beat teams one-on-one (that doesn’t mean Leonard doesn’t take the shot, it can just be an easier shot created off of some movement).
Something worth keeping in mind as we look towards the Playoffs, one of the things that has consistently hampered this team in the postseason is opposing teams smothering Toronto’s predictable offence. That is something that Nurse is well aware of, and was a factor in the self-imposed early-season mandate to experiment with rotations and combinations — an attempt to breed versatility into the team. The benefit of having the offence not only initiated from the perimeter but also the high-post is that it helps keep the team from getting predictable and gives them a whole other approach to throw at opposing defences (this is a strategy not only employed by Gasol in Memphis for several years, but was also a cornerstone of San Antonio’s offence during the Duncan/Parker years).
From a human perspective, it’s not hard to understand why Nurse is reluctant to simply cast Ibaka to the bench in favour of Gasol. Ibaka has done nothing to deserve a demotion and no matter how hard team’s work to disassociate a bench role with a demotion, it’s hardwired into the heads of professional athletes that moving to the bench is undesirable. Nurse has to walk a very fine line between acknowledging all that Ibaka has done while also acknowledging that he needs to build chemistry between Gasol and the starters sooner rather than later with only 24 games left before the Playoffs begin. Maybe if Nurse had a longer NBA resume to fall back on he could make a more decisive move, but as a rookie head coach these conversations are not nearly as cut-and-dry. Performances like Gasol’s on Monday help, but Ibaka’s stat line ensures that the conversation will remain difficult.
Nonetheless, Ujiri didn’t swap three rotation players to watch Gasol play 22 minutes off of the bench. Gasol was an All-Star as recently as 2017, and one could argue that if he’d played in the East all year he’d be one again this season. He was brought in to be a difference-maker (think, more Tobias Harris, less Niko Mirotic) and everyone knows how this is going to end. Ibaka did nothing to cause this situation, but he is the one who is going to lose out because of it. The only solace out there for him is that the Raptors will be better off for his sacrifice. We’ll see if he sees it that way.