You may remember Darcy Tucker as the fulcrum of the Axis of Annoying that was the early 2000 Maple Leafs, along with brother-in-law Shayne Corson, and the largely, thankfully forgotten, Travis Green.
Tucker’s schtick was simple. He flew around the ice, inciting shit, and then every other game or so completely lost his mind leading you to see something you had never before seen at the rink. Like the time he threw himself into the Ottawa Senators bench and started a brawl, or the time he threatened to poke the eyes out of other noted super pest Sean Avery before the game had even begun, or the time a referee got so sick of his antics he, literally, threw Tucker into the penalty box.
You could tell when Tucker was about to go off, because he got this wild look on his face, which my friends and I gleefully called the Crazy Eyes (lovingly immortalized by this beer).
The point is, Tucker could let his antics interfere with his effectiveness. When he didn’t topple off the ledge of his own making, he was actually a pretty decent hockey player. Certainly, he was good at throwing his opponents off their game. But, as his skills waned, the “crazy” came out more and more — sapping his value.
Which brings us to the Raptors’ Serge Ibaka.
It’s an open secret that a number of NBA cognoscenti were worried that Ibaka was poised for a quick fall from his peak. He was a Stretch Four, at a time where Stretch Four’s were already becoming extinct in favour of Draymond Green, Blake Griffin-types who can take advantage of the 4-3 or 4-1 situations generated by pick and rolls. It’s why pretty much every NBA analyst type lauded the Raps for limiting their term exposure on the big man.
It’s also no secret that Ibaka has struggled at times this season. His steals per game have been cut in half, his blocks per game have fallen by more than half, his rebound rate has dropped to an almost career low, and his fit with Jonas Valanciunas has been awkward at best — continuing a trend from the past couple of seasons that suggest Serge really needs to be a centre.
Now, to be fair, he’s also shooting the three at his usual high level, while posting the best true shooting percentage of his career, so it’s not all bad. But his skills on the defensive end, which is Serge’s bread and butter, are clearly lagging.
Worse, it seems this decline is getting to Serge.
We all remember the Robin Lopez incident last year (in which Serge might have given Robin a bit of a sneaky elbow in the back, but was, as his own brother admitted, totally Robin’s fault), but early this season Serge has found himself in a couple of other dust-ups, and disappointingly they seem more a product of Ibaka’s own frustration than anything else.
Take this one in San Antonio:
At the time the narrative was that Spurs forward, LaMarcus Aldridge had elbowed Kyle, and Ibaka came to his defense.
But watching more closely, it’s clear that Ibaka shoved L.A. into Lowry and then, not even realizing the friendly fire situation he created, got into Aldridge’s grill.
A tense game? Sure. A moment of passion? Likely. But let’s not forget that Aldridge had roasted the Raptors that night, and on that play he was busy out-bodying Ibaka again.
Now, let’s watch what happened between the two right before the tussle.
LaMarcus hasn’t done anything here but try to get position, and being stronger than Ibaka, he’s getting it. A frustrated Ibaka responds with a shove, that almost gets Alridge in the face, and then, after the bucket, shoves Aldridge again, before a final fling of his arm catches the Spurs forward again.
Ibaka was lucky that the refs decided on the usual chicken “double technical” rather than tossing them both from the game. And while you can make a good case that would have been a great trade for Toronto, it’s not what one of your veteran players should be doing.
Then last night we have a weird situation where Boogie Cousins (another Darcy Tucker Clone candidate, by the by) and Ibaka start jawing at each other as they cross paths heading into a timeout. Usually when Boogie is involved in something you bet the house that he caused it, but watching the game it was pretty clear that DeMarcus reacted to something Ibaka said.
Cousins then waved his arm at Ibaka a couple of times, as if to say “don’t talk that trash,” and Ibaka reacted like he was going to charge Cousins — something he never ever would have actually done.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying Ibaka is “fake tough.” He grew up in the Republic of Congo, where over five million people were killed during a war he lived through. Ibaka has likely dealt with things that pretty much no other NBAer could even imagine. If I had to pick one pro basketball player to accompany me down a dark alley, Ibaka is high on that list. But the idea that he was actually going to charge twenty feet across an open floor to go after Cousins because he waved his hand at him is ludicrous.
Faking that you’re going to something ludicrous is also not what a veteran leader should be doing.
When you watch the play it looks even worse on Ibaka. The whole incident started after Cousins went coast to coast on the Raps, easily side-stepping a half-hearted attempt by Serge to draw a charge.
The overhead replay showed it better, but it was obvious that Ibaka’s gambit never had a chance to work. It’s that effort that disturbs, and makes me concerned about Serge’s head space, because as anyone who’s ever played rec basketball, the “I’ll just stop here and try to get a charge on a guy who has ample opportunity to easily side-step me,” is the universal symbol for “I’m too lazy to try to play good defense in this bad situation and so I’m going to try to make myself look like I have a high basketball IQ, by trying to take this obviously bullshit charge.” [Ed. Note: these are both real rec basketball things.]
All this carried over to the third quarter when Ibaka picked up a silly tech for jawing at the Pels bench after hitting a jumper.
I get it. They’re only a couple of plays. It’s early in the season. And it feels like nit-picking to bring this up in what may have been Ibaka’s best all-around game of the season.
But... but maybe they’re the beginning of a worrisome trends that suggest that not only might Serge not be able to turn it up on the defensive end, those failures might be getting to him.
The problem here isn’t just that Ibaka could be getting a step slow and is finding that a tough emotional bridge to cross, it’s what those outbursts do to the team. Toronto already has the mercurial Kyle Lowry who, like an expensive sports car needs to be perfectly tuned to be at his best. It’s not hard to see how Ibaka, acting the fool, could affect KLOE.
It also requires the Raptors to expend mental and emotional energy keeping their starting power forward focused on the game at hand. Against the Bulls, you can argue the fight brought a level of emotion the Raps needed, but that won’t always be the case — it certainly didn’t help in San Antonio, a night the Raps were running hot all game — and you can argue it usually isn’t.
One of the reason those pretty decent Leaf teams fell apart was because of the drama created by Tucker, Corson and Green. At a certain point that type of emotional energy wears on a team. While these Raps are waaaaaay more professional than those Leafs, it’s a distraction that isn’t needed.
Darcy Tucker is (metaphorically) dead, let’s not see the worst of his reign repeat itself.