Breaking down the two-man game between Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka

11 mins read

We know that Toronto has been dominant with its starters in the game, but the bench this season has been less consistent. One game at a time, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet are changing that. They have developed well together in past weeks, especially as VanVleet has shifted more and more towards distributor first, scorer second, and Ibaka has become more comfortable playing off the bench. Let’s dig into how the two have performed together, what needs work, and whether we can expect from VanVleet-Ibaka lineups going forward into the playoffs.

Like it or not, Marc Gasol is a consistent starter at this point in the season. When asked by media who was starting against the Orlando Magic on April 1, Nick Nurse said “the usual group” to include Gasol. Gasol seizing the starting job full-time means Ibaka will play a host of minutes without Kyle Lowry, who has been Ibaka’s lodestar for most of this season. Lowry is a brilliant pick-and-roll artist, and Ibaka has reaped the fruits of Lowry’s passes, especially on a floor spaced by Danny Green’s shooting threat. But with Ibaka playing off the bench for much of the playoffs, his comfort zone will be different. VanVleet struggled to run the pick-and-roll in the beginning of the season next to Jonas Valanciunas, but he has come around recently. Though the two have started to show fledgling chemistry, there is lots of room still to grow.

As a pick-and-roll handler, VanVleet scores a minuscule 0.79 points per possession (ppp), a poor mark. He too often settles for midrange jumpers and only shoots 52 percent around the rim. As a roll man, Ibaka scores 1.11 ppp. That’s only 56th percentile league-wide, but it’s solid for a huge usage option, right around Clint Capela (1.17), Steven Adams (1.16) Jusuf Nurkic (1.13), Nikola Vucevic (1.11), and Andre Drummond (1.09). The point is that Toronto is much better when Ibaka is finishing possessions in the pick-and-roll instead of VanVleet. And since returning from injury, VanVleet has passed out of 62.4 percent of his drives. He averages the eighth-highest percentage in the league on passing out of drives, so it looks like he too is aware of the preferred shot selection. Let’s dig into those VanVleet-Ibaka actions.

First, let’s look at how the two usually connect. Here’s a chart breaking down each of VanVleet’s 66 assists to Ibaka on the season.

 Number of assistsPercentage of total assists
Total assists66100
Assists from pick-and-roll for a jumper3147.0
Assists from pick-and-roll for a layup1116.7
Assists not in pick-and-roll for jumper913.6
Assists not in pick-and-roll for a layup69.1
Assists that really weren't created by VanVleet at all913.6

VanVleet is much more comfortable hitting a popper, or a short roller, than he is using the in-between space to suck defensive gravity towards him and creating a shot for his big. VanVleet is too small to see over multiple bodies, and he’s not enough of a finishing threat around the rim to draw all of the defensive attention. As a result, the largest share of VanVleet’s dishes to Ibaka end in jumpers. Approximately 50 percent of VanVleet’s assists to Ibaka look exactly like this:

VanVleet can sometimes add some flair to his pick-and-roll passes, like here as he wraps the ball around his defender to create extra space for Ibaka. The resulting attempt is the same, but VanVleet adds a little creativity to create an extra fraction of space for Ibaka’s jumper.

Here’s another bit of extra spice from VanVleet, where he rejects the pick and Nashes the drive, keeping his dribble alive while attacking underneath the rim towards the other side of the floor. Ibaka smartly doesn’t roll into congestion, leaving the space for a cutting Siakam, but lurks in the midrange space vacated by VanVleet’s attack. The result is still a midrange jumper out of a pick-and-roll, but the deviation from the norm created an easier look.

The trend of most of VanVleet’s assists to Ibaka resulting in jumpers does mirror Ibaka’s actual shot chart on the season. 48 percent of Ibaka’s shots on the season come from the midrange, only 34 percent at the rim, and a minuscule 18 percent from deep. However, even though Ibaka is an elite midrange shooter, his scoring at the rim is far more efficient. His 50 percent accuracy from midrange is good for 1.0 ppp, whereas his 75 percent accuracy at the rim is good for 1.5 ppp. One area of possible improvement would be for VanVleet to improve at finding Ibaka on his roll to the rim, rather than taking the easy, medium-efficiency pass and ending the action before it probes the defence further. Most of VanVleet’s assists to a rolling Ibaka have come in the following variety, out of simple first actions that are created more by Ibaka’s angle of attack than VanVleet’s efforts:

The single most creative assist from VanVleet to a rolling Ibaka on the season comes here. VanVleet steps back to draw the big out of the paint before he lobs the ball to a sealing Ibaka. This is probably the highest-level pick-and-roll between the two that resulted in a basket all season.

Here is a similar display of creativity that comes out of the Spain pick-and-roll. VanVleet acts as the initial screener here, instead of the original ball-handler, but he pops and receives the ball. Ibaka, for whom VanVleet screened, seals once again for the lob entry. Heady stuff.

But when the two deviate from the bread-and-butter patterns, it doesn’t always go well. Ibaka can save VanVleet when he tries to overthink his role. Here, VanVleet tries to slow his drive and draw two defenders, but he gets stuck and allows defenders to recover to their original men. VanVleet almost has to kick the ball out and reset the play, but Ibaka smartly repositions himself for an open shot. VanVleet is credited with the assist, but really Ibaka earns the assist and the bucket on this one.

So the takeaway is that the two have connected plenty, but there are more bountiful looks being left on the table. However, the overall numbers indicate that VanVleet and Ibaka have thrived together.

The two-man game, of course, affects other players on the court. VanVleet is solid at hitting shooters around his pick-and-rolls, and the lineup data shows this. Even though Ibaka takes a small share of triples, the team on the whole takes a good amount when VanVleet and Ibaka share the floor. The team has an almost identical 1/3-1/3-1/3 split between 3s-midrangers-rim attempts in 1834 possessions with VanVleet and Ibaka on the floor, per CTG. Their accuracy from all three areas are elite, especially at the rim (66.0 percent) and from deep (41.1 percent). The team’s scoring around VanVleet-Ibaka is solid. Most importantly, the team has a +11.5 scoring differential per 100 possessions in such minutes, which is far better than the team’s general +6.2 differential.

VanVleet and Ibaka may be classified as bench players, but the Raptors smite opponents when they share the floor. That’s important stuff, and it bodes well for the playoffs. If you trim the data further, and take out players who won’t see the floor in the playoffs (leaving only Lowry, Green, Powell, Anunoby, Leonard, or Siakam as potential players on the floor alongside VanVleet-Ibaka,) the differential becomes +13.0 with an offensive rating of 121.2. The numbers agree elsewhere. Go to stats, and check out the two-man lineup data: VanVleet-Ibaka actually have a net rating superior to the Lowry-Ibaka pairing. The Raptors dazzle when VanVleet and Ibaka work together.

VanVleet offers a huge number of skills. He’s a surprisingly effective defender and an elite shooter and off-ball mover. His handle, passing, and on-ball decision making are still works in progress, but VanVleet has made headway this season alongside Ibaka. Ibaka is an efficient roller or popper, and he’s a great partner with whom VanVleet can work. Ibaka makes easy plays even simpler. Take a dribble, pass the ball; he’ll do the rest.

When it is playoff time, the starters can’t play all 48 minutes, and the team’s best offensive players can’t take all the shots. The team needs other looks and options, and that’s where VanVleet and Ibaka come into play. VanVleet will have plenty of reps in secondary actions, or even in surprise playcalls, to attack defences. He and Ibaka have proven this season that they will be ready to perform, even if there’s still room to grow. They’re the Green Onions of B-Sides, and the Raptors will be thankful to have them as a backup option.


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