In an era where analytics nerds rule over NBA discourse — one where NBA fans blame declining ratings on coverage that favours transactions and numbers over craft and beauty — it wasn’t all that surprising to see people disregard Serge Ibaka’s on-court showmanship as they analyzed his departure from Toronto. Instead, media and fans highlighted Ibaka’s “three-point shooting,” “post-defense,” and “switchability” as reasons why the Congolese big man will be missed in Toronto and why he potentially saved Los Angeles Clippers’ offseason.
But Ibaka didn’t endear himself to Raptors’ fans by doing any of those things. In fact, ask any Raptors fan and they’ll tell you that Ibaka’s lack of fundamentals could be extremely frustrating at times. The truth is, Ibaka won us over through his one-of-a-kind showmanship on the court (and off of it), announcing a blocked shot with two big thumbs down and a shake of the head and a big dunk with a scream that brought the crowd to its feet. Without a doubt, what I’ll remember most from Ibaka’s three-and-a-half seasons as a Raptor is his brilliant ability to play to — and win over — the crowd.
Ibaka began his career in Oklahoma City where he was a bouncy big man who finished mostly at the rim and blocked everything in sight. By his third season in the league (2011-12), Ibaka was averaging 3.7 blocks per game, still an NBA record. Ibaka’s 1672 career blocks rank third among active NBA players.
By the time Ibaka got to Toronto in 2017 after a brief stop in Orlando, he was already shooting 3.8 three-pointers a game, while his block numbers were down to 1.6 per game. He was a fundamentally different player — no longer the first-team All-Defense member he was in OKC for three straight seasons between 2011-2014, and by the time Nick Nurse took over as the Raptors head coach in 2018, no longer even a power forward. Ibaka was slower laterally and didn’t have the same bouncy legs he entered the league with, but that didn’t stop him from putting on a show from the day he got to Toronto.
Ibaka’s first bucket in as a Raptor — which came in a February home game against the Boston Celtics — was a precursor to the exciting brand of basketball he would bring to Toronto on a nightly basis.
Serge Ibaka gets the block then hits the jumper. pic.twitter.com/e6HlZvcHj7
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) February 25, 2017
Ibaka was a true showman in every sense of the word; someone who played to the crowd better than any Raptor since maybe Vince Carter in the early 2000s. That’s not to say Ibaka was more skilled than his Raptor counterparts, but he was different than the rest of them. As fun as it is to watch DeMar DeRozan’s footwork or Kyle Lowry’s all-around brilliance or Pascal Siakam’s spin moves or Marc Gasol’s passing or even Kawhi Leonard’s methodical mid-range mastery, none of them match the pure showmanship Ibaka brought to the court. While those other players tend to stay on an even keel regardless of the situation, Ibaka, for better or worse, always played with the emotion commensurate of the moment, hyping up the crowd and playing at his best when feeding off that reciprocal crowd energy.
Ibaka brought a certain spunk to a very modern, analytically-inclined, fundamental basketball team that shoots a lot of threes and layups. In fact, part of what Ibaka brought to the franchise — and its fan base — could never show up in the box score, which is why he perfectly embodies the raw and exciting aspect of basketball that is swept under the rug when we focus on numbers and analytics. For the 20,000 fans in the arena and millions more watching on TV, numbers don’t matter; what matters is the ability for someone to make a play so special and timely that it brings those fans to their feet. More often than not in Toronto, the person who did that was Ibaka.
Not that fundamentals or analytics are bad, by the way. That mentality helps the Raptors win so many games every season, bypassing everyone’s expectations on their way to a regular top-three seed. They are also part of the reason for Ibaka’s coldly calculated departure, as the team was unwilling to pay big for a center who’s on-court production could mostly be replaced for cheaper.
But analytics are certainly not everything: not over the course of an 82-game season and certainly not in a sport as free-flowing and creative and beautiful as NBA basketball. Even though the ultimate goal is always to win a championship, sometimes you just want entertainment, especially when the Raptors are up 20 on the Orlando Magic in the third quarter of a November home game. There is a reason Charlotte Hornets fans are excited about LaMelo Ball: because regardless of if they win or not, he is going to bring an exciting brand of basketball to a fanbase desperate for entertainment.
Part of the NBA’s failure to get casual fans to watch more games has been its inability to celebrate the craft and the showmanship that make the game so exciting. Ibaka is one of basketball’s greatest showmen — one of the greatest in Raptors history — and no one on the Raptors’ roster will replace that.
Ibaka was also a great locker room guy who had some pretty big moments on the court during his time as a Raptor: He hit one of the biggest shots of his career in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers, rising over Ben Simmons’ outstretched hands to drain a three-pointer that put the Raptors up 5 with 9:36 to go.
He also hit the clutch go-ahead shot against the Indiana Pacers this past season (a game I was at, by the way), helping the Raptors come back to secure their longest-ever winning-streak at 12 games:
Even when things weren’t going so well for the Raptors, Ibaka always knew how to entertain a crowd:
Ibaka vs. Chriss FIGHT NIGHT pic.twitter.com/r3fC1zOOv6
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) March 12, 2019
Say what you will about Serge Ibaka — and I haven’t even gotten to his handsomeness or charm — but you cannot doubt his ability to entertain a crowd. Only a few players in the NBA are as good showmen as Ibaka was in Toronto, and that is going to be hard to replace.
Goodbye Serge. You will be missed.
— din (@klooowry) November 22, 2020