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Numbers Game: Get Ready for the Serge Ibaka Experience

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With the Raptors managing to acquire one of their dream targets at power forward, just how well will Ibaka fit into the team?

NBA: Orlando Magic at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

So, the Raptors got their man. But what does Serge Ibaka bring to the team? Let’s take a look.

First off, what does the team need from a power forward? All indications, based on their success with Patrick Patterson, are that the first and foremost skill that matters on the offensive end is shooting — if the power forward can space the floor, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas can do real damage inside.

Three Point Shooting

Can Ibaka shoot? He sure can.

On the year, Ibaka is shooting 39% from distance, on nearly 4 attempts per game. Those are each career highs, but not wild outliers, so it seems sustainable.

Ibaka has shown signs for years of having a good three point shot — as far back as 2012-13 he shot over 35% from distance on just under 1 shot per game. He followed that up with 38% on similar volume the following season, before seeing his attempts leap up to 3.2 a game on 38% shooting in 2014-15. Last season he had a bit of a down year, with his attempts dropping to 2.4 a game and hitting just under 33% of them, but overall he’s been a functional shooter for the better part of half a decade now.

Better yet, he’s not a shooter who needs to be parked in the corner. The Raptors do generate looks for their big men in the corner, but many looks will come at the top of the arc, especially as a pop option in screen plays for DeRozan or Kyle Lowry, or to pull opposing weak side help out to the perimeter on post ups or roll plays with Valanciunas.

This season, Ibaka has taken 201 of his 214 threes from above the break, posting a 40% success rate from there. Last season he struggled from there (and got far fewer attempts, with about half of his threes coming from the corner), but the season before that he also posted a 37% success rate from above the break, so this year is no fluke — Ibaka has that range and is able to fire away from the furthest part of the arc from the rim at high volume. That season two years ago where he had more success also saw him take a significant majority of his three point attempts from above the break, so it may be that he’s more comfortable from there. That always helps, as some shooters are more comfortable in the corners and having Ibaka above the break allows the Raptors to position other players in the corner.

Guys like DeMarre Carroll (39% from the corners this season versus 33% above the break), Norman Powell (39% vs 30%) and even DeRozan (39% vs 17%) would all benefit from getting more of their outside shots from the corner. Patterson could also see some improvement when they play together (with splits of 38% and 34%, less significant than with the others), though his 34% above the break has the same effect on the offence - and with the effect Patterson has had (117 ORTG with him on the court, best on the team, versus 107 ORTG without him, 2nd worst behind Lowry), imagine the effect the even more lethal shooting of Ibaka could have.

Rebounding

One area the Raptors have struggled in all year is rebounding, specifically on the defensive end. Part of this is due to the lack of production from the starting PF spot, with Pascal Siakam getting most of the minutes there and putting up the lowest defensive rebound percentage of any big man on the team, and part is due to the lack of rebounding from the bench centre position, with Lucas Nogueira being a very effective help defender but grabbing only 16% of available defensive rebounds (Valanciunas, to compare, has grabbed 29% while on the court this year, though Valanciunas is an elite rebounder). Ibaka projects to play some minutes in both roles, so does he help?

Well, yes. For his career, Ibaka has an average defensive rebound percentage of 18.6%, a good step up from both Nogueira’s 16% and Siakam’s 15%. And you would expect his rate to go up a bit with minutes at centre. There have been some concerns about decline in Ibaka’s game, but in terms of rebounding he’s not really declined so much as had one bad year, last season. His past 5 seasons his defensive rebound percentage has been: 18.6%, 16.2%, 18.1%, 19.6%, 17.0%. That’s actually very stable.

He has shown decline in offensive rebound rate, but that is almost certainly due to his increased shooting role from the perimeter outlined above. His spike in three point attempts two seasons ago lines up exactly with his offensive rebound rates plummeting. In the meantime, even with that perimeter oriented game, he has still posted offensive rebound rates the past three seasons about 50% higher than Patterson’s rate this season, so he’ll bring a little more to the team in that regard as well.

Defense

Here’s the one everyone is really excited about, and for good reason, though maybe not the reasons you would think.

The basic assumption when acquiring Ibaka is you are getting a rim protector. That’s not really all that true anymore. Ibaka earned his reputation in his first few seasons in the league, posting block rates (percent of opposing team’s field goal attempts that are blocked by the player) of 6.5% or higher in his 2nd through 5th seasons (Nogueira’s rate is 7.1% this year, for reference). He peaked at a league leading 9.8% in 2011-12.

But he hasn’t posted numbers like that for the past few years, settling in around 4-5%. That’s more along the lines of what Siakam has done this year (though still a higher block rate than a more ground bound big man like Valanciunas puts up, just over 2%).

So, elite rim protection? Not so much. But is that what the Raptors really want from him? I don’t think so.

The Raptors’ defense has been very solid this season with Patterson on the court (103.4 on-court DRTG, 2nd best on the team behind Nogueira), and terrible with Siakam (107.8 DRTG, 3rd worst on the team), even though Siakam blocks four times as many shots as Patterson (who has a less-than-scintillating 1.3% block rate this year, a lower rate than Terrence Ross had). They simply do not really need a shot blocker at the 4. They just need a smart defender who knows when to rotate and where to be. And Ibaka is an eight year veteran in the NBA who has specialized in defense for much of it. He’ll be an upgrade over a raw rookie in Siakam or a slow-as-molasses big man like Jared Sullinger (who has also posted better on-court defensive numbers than Siakam, because even with his conditioning issues he knows where to be defensively).

That is also the reason I expect the much vaunted idea of playing Ibaka next to Patterson will be situational rather than a heavily used option with Ibaka taking many of Nogueira’s minutes. The Raptors have found success with bench units anchored by an elite shot blocker each of the past two seasons, and Ibaka is not that anymore. Combine that with his decent but not great rebounding (a bit better than Nogueira’s, but not better enough to make up for posting just over half his block rate), and his fit at centre is more tenuous than his fit at power forward. Still, it gives the Raptors another option against smaller lineups, and that is always good to have.

What do you think about Ibaka’s fit here? Did I miss anything obvious that he’ll bring to the Raptors?

All shooting and on-court stats per NBA.com, and all rate stats per basketball-reference.com.