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How Serge Ibaka defied the odds and became irreplaceable

It was game 4 of the Toronto Raptors’ second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers last playoffs when Raptors head coach Nick Nurse made a key, potentially series-altering decision: To match Marc Gasol’s minutes with those of Joel Embiid. 

In the first three games, Ibaka, a power-forward for most of his career until switching primarily to center under Nurse in 2018, struggled to contain Embiid, the best post-scorer in the league. Unlike Gasol — who at 7-foot-0, 255 pounds is one of the biggest and smartest players in basketball — Ibaka lacks the size, strength, and positional intelligence to match up with Embiid, and it was costing the Raptors throughout the series, especially in game 3 when Embiid led the 76ers to a 2-1 series lead with 33 points on 9/18 shooting.

Defending Embiid: Ibaka vs. Gasol
Embiid Ibaka on court Gasol on court
FG% 43.2% 36.1%
3P% 41.6% 33.3%
TOV 14 24
+/- +45 +39

The move to back off Ibaka (in favour of Gasol) was somewhat symbolic of the Congolese’s tenure as a member of the Toronto Raptors. Since being traded to the Raptors at the 2016-17 trade deadline, Ibaka never truly lived up to his potential, nor did he meet the expectations Raptors management likely had for him when they sent Terrance Ross and a first-round pick to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Ibaka. 

Ibaka has always been useful, more so since Nurse took over as head coach last season and turned Ibaka into a center. But despite spending the prime years of his career (in terms of age) in Toronto, Ibaka never played his best basketball as a Raptor and was never an irreplaceable part of the team. 

That isn’t to say Ibaka was unimportant. He made several key plays throughout the Raptors 2019 championship run, like when he hit a three-pointer in Ben Simmons’ face in the fourth quarter of game 7 of the 76ers series.

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Ibaka’s versatility was also key throughout the playoffs: one of the few players in the league who can play center when the Raptors want to go small or power-forward beside Gasol when the Raptors want to go big, which they did a lot in that Philadelphia series, for example.

But Ibaka’s role in the playoffs was a small one, and he wasn’t all that consistent. Ibaka averaged subpar stats of 9/6/1 and 1.0 blocks on 48/24/76 shooting in 20.8 minutes per game in the playoffs. His PER of 15.1 ranked fifth on the team and his 500 minutes ranked seventh, meaning he was not one of the Raptors go-to options. 

Heading into the 2019-20 season, many people including myself predicted that Ibaka was the Raptors’ most tradable player. Owed $23 million in the last year of his contract immediately after proving to be less important to the Raptors than Gasol, it appeared Ibaka could be moved no matter which way the Raptors pivoted: If the Raptors choose to sell at the deadline, Ibaka would be a somewhat highly-coveted big man whose salary is easy enough to match and could net at least one good asset in return. If the Raptors bought at the deadline, looking to upgrade a roster that is big-man heavy and short on guards (punny), the Raptors could trade Ibaka for a position of need. I, for one, expected Ibaka to be traded at the deadline no matter which way the Raptors pivoted. 

I was wrong, but no one could have seen this coming. 

Ibaka is having by far his best season as a Raptor. Filling a big role with Gasol missing 19 games and counting to injury, Ibaka is averaging 16/8/1 on 52/39/75 shooting in 26.6 minutes per game. His effective field goal percentage of 56.8 and true shooting percentage of 59.1 are both highs in his four-season tenure as a Raptor.

Nurse credits Ibaka for working diligently on his shot, and he is shooting 56.3 percent from two and 39.0 percent from three on 2.9 attempts per game.

Ibaka credits Gasol for inspiring him to be a better passer, and his 1.3 assists per game is tied for a career-high while he is assisting on 8.4 percent of his teammates’ field-goals when he is on the floor, another career-high. However, by taking on more playmaking responsibilities, Ibaka is also averaging a career-high 1.9 turnovers per game, which he will need to limit in the playoffs.

Ibaka isn’t the same player who made three consecutive All-Defensive First-Team’s between 2011 and 2014, but he is playing his best defense since joining the Raptors, and some of that just comes down to how focused he is and hard he is playing. Ibaka is hitting every player that cuts through the paint when he is there — either literally putting his body in the way of the cutting player or just pushing them to let his presence be felt. Although his rim-protection is nowhere near what it used to be (averaging a career-low 0.8 blocks per game. In researching for this piece I discovered that Ibaka averaged 3.7 blocks per game in 2011-12. wow.), Ibaka is rarely caught out of position and his mere presence near the rim is a deterrent. Opponents are shooting just 57.6 percent against Ibaka in the restricted area and a stingy 39.4 percent in the paint.

Ibaka is having a better season than Gasol. Gasol still might be more important to the Raptors’ title hopes if and when he gets healthy, but Ibaka has played so well that the Raptors front office decided to hold onto him through the end of the season, likely because finding a deal that would send Ibaka out and make the Raptors better became impossible.

By not trading Ibaka, the Raptors are counting on him to be a core part of their team in the playoffs. 

Gasol’s season has been riddled with injuries, so it isn’t completely fair to him to say Ibaka has been better. But after playing a full NBA season, NBA playoffs, and then winning the FIBA World Cup with the Spanish National Team this summer, it isn’t all that surprising that a 35-year-old Gasol has been unable to stay healthy. Aside from being more available than Gasol, Ibaka is also having a bigger impact and has earned a lot of trust from his coaches, even closing out games in place of Gasol when the Spaniard was healthy, something we rarely saw last season.

Gasol’s defense, which is the biggest reason he was so important to the Raptors title run, is still elite. When it comes to matching up with Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetekounpo, there are very few centers you would rather have on the floor.

However, the Raptors are different than they were a year ago and so is the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia is no longer as much of a threat (the 76ers are 9-19 on the road), while the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, and Indiana Pacers are.

Ibaka might actually be more important in those series’ than Gasol because his offensive game is much more well-rounded than Gasol’s at this point in their careers, averaging 8.0 points more than Gasol this season. None of those teams have a bruising center that they consistently go to in the post, which is why Ibaka should not only be able to stay on the floor in those series’, he could have a significant two-way impact.

Ibaka is going to have a lot more responsibility in the playoffs this time around. Without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the Raptors lack the same kind of scoring threats. While they are still elite defensively (2nd in the league), the Raptors struggle to score (11th in the league) at times, which makes Ibaka so important in a playoff series where the game slows down and points are even harder to come by. 

If Ibaka can continue playing at a high level throughout the remainder of the season and the playoffs, the Raptors will have as good of a chance as anybody to come out of the Eastern Conference. 

Plus, due to his age, improved shooting, and positional versatility, the Raptors might choose to re-sign Ibaka at the end of the season. 

Ibaka has been so good this season, some might call it art.

Stats current as of Friday, February 7th.

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