A fundamentally misunderstood player, I think.
Serge Ibaka has led the league in blocks with an absurd 3.7 per game. He’s been an essential piece of two NBA Finals teams (winning one), 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.
For whatever reason, many still cling to the idea that Ibaka is an incredible back line defender, who can also finish plays on the offensive end. That hasn’t been the case for a couple years – Ibaka is an incredible offensive weapon who occasionally makes plays on the defensive end. And that type of player is immensely valuable to an NBA team, and especially (as we’ve seen) in the playoffs.
For 2 years now, Ibaka has carried any offensive load that was asked of him during the regular season, and did so with a remarkable consistency for a bench scorer. He humbly accepted a role on the bench and existed within the framework of the team. I really don’t know what more the Raptors could have asked from Ibaka these past 2 years, and whether it’s in Toronto or elsewhere, he’s about to get paid.
Whether we like it or not, the Raptors have holes in how they create shots for their team. We saw this become problematic in certain matchups, and a running theme when that happens is that Ibaka starts to take a lot more shots. Ibaka is comfortable squaring up at the basket for anywhere between 8 and 21 shots in a game, and did it with incredible efficiency (51% FG – 38% 3PT). The occasions where his offense kept the Raptors afloat during a lackadaisical first quarter would be too many to count on your hands.
Ibaka’s pick n’ pop game is the easy counter to what so many defenses try and stop the Raptors from doing. He shoots a good enough percentage from that area that teams feel punished for leaving him open, which can shake up how the Raptors are defended, or can provide a modicum of offense to keep them hanging around until someone else finds their rhythm. It’s a hand in glove fit, and not one that anyone else currently on the roster can replicate. His 72.6% EFG on catch and shoot numbers (playoffs) are hard to find anywhere else in the league, to be honest.
As for his defense, which has become less potent, it isn’t at the point where he’s hunted with regularity in the regular season, but the Celtics did get after him in the pick n’ roll (with great success) in the playoffs. It wouldn’t have been a huge concern if the Raptors didn’t have immense trouble scoring on the other end, but alas they did. Marc Gasol was the clear #1 defensive option in the frontcourt (#7 in DPIPM) and Ibaka was miles better offensively in the postseason. Nick Nurse tried to juggle them properly, but the team still came up short.
The good aspects of Ibaka’s defense come with his “pop”. Ibaka fits nicely with two aspects of the Raptors style in this respect – he gets a good amount of blocks (especially in the postseason) which jumpstarts transition for one of the league’s most transition dependent teams, and he closes out defensive possessions as a rebounder. Those two things are really important, and it’s why it’s so evident as a viewer when Ibaka is having a good defensive game. You get the finger wag from him as the Raptors advance in transition, and he’ll sky over bigs for important rebounds.
In an NBA where it seems more important to incentivize bad shots than it is to block good ones, Ibaka’s role has changed immensely. He’s still finding ways to contribute, and his interpretations of the floor continue to change.
With his free agency looming, it’s hard to envision a Raptors half-court offense without him in the future. Does Kyle Lowry make it really easy to be a roll man or a popper? Yes, of course. Has Ibaka benefited from running next to Lowry? Yes, of course. However (comma) it cuts both ways. Ibaka brought a level of professionalism and efficiency to the Raptors half-court offense that is really hard to find packaged in a bench big, or starting big for that matter. Other teams are probably looking at Ibaka, ready to offer him a bigger role than he had in Toronto. Maybe even thinking he can creep up to 18-20 points per game as a starting big man. The Raptors will have to juggle the different needs of the roster for this upcoming season while maintaining flexibility down the road.
Either way, Ibaka was a major pillar of the Raptors team this year, and someone who maxed out his role. He’s never made waves about being a bench player, and presents an extremely humble disposition combined with a great on-court compete level.
Have a blessed day.