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Player Review: Is Serge Ibaka the power forward of the future?

Toronto’s power forward prayers were finally answered this year with the mid-season Ibaka acquisition. Was he worth it as a rental? Should the team re-sign him?

Toronto Raptors v New York Knicks Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

One of the most talked about issues concerning the Toronto Raptors during the last four years of playoff runs has been their gaping hole at the starting power forward position.

Amir Johnson was a serviceable option the first couple seasons, but injuries and a lack of any kind of inside-out game gradually made him an outdated player type in the modern NBA.

Over the last two seasons, an over-the-hill Luis Scola and inexperienced rookie Pascal Siakam were tasked with starting at the four for a team with title (or at least deep playoff run) aspirations — something that, in retrospect, they had no business doing.

Patrick Patterson was waiting right there on the bench all along, but head coach Dwane Casey preferred using him as a key cog in his often deadly second unit lineups, for better or worse.

But Raptors fans and pundits had their power forward prayers answered this season at the trade deadline, when Toronto acquired Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic in exchange for Terrence Ross and what ended up being the 25th pick in this summer’s upcoming draft.

With Ibaka, the Raptors finally had the versatile starting big they had coveted for years — one who could protect the rim, play power forward and centre, and even stretch out the floor beyond the three-point line.

Of course, a big swing like a move for Ibaka indicated that the Raptors were making a move to contend versus the Cleveland Cavaliers, and they still got swept at the hands of LeBron James and the Cavs during this year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Considering the fact that Ibaka is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, was the move worth it if it ends up having been just a rental? The Raptors hold Ibaka’s Bird rights and can therefore go into the luxury tax to re-sign him, but did we see enough in Ibaka’s 33 games of Raptors service (between the regular season and playoffs) to justify swallowing a hefty tax bill to bring him back?

Let’s take a look.

The Good

Serge Ibaka performed pretty well as advertised for the Raptors from a raw stats perspective.

Over his 23 regular season games, his averages of 14.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.3 steals, and 1.4 blocks per contest were pretty well exactly in line with what he had been doing in Orlando prior to the trade, and not far off his numbers during his last season as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015-16.

You add a guy like Ibaka for his shot blocking and overall rim protection (more on that below), but what is really impressive about Serge’s game is how reliable he has become from long range.

With the Raptors, Ibaka shot a career-high 36.9% of his field goals from beyond the arc, and hit a career-best 39.8% of those attempts. His accuracy dipped to 31.6% in the playoffs, but the bigger sample size of the regular season suggests that he’s growing to be a real threat from deep (especially above the break, where he connected on 41.8% of his attempts this year).

The Bad

It’s weird to talk about Ibaka’s defense as a negative, but it’s worth noting that he is no longer the All-Defensive threat he was the last time he received the honour in 2013-14.

With the Raptors, Ibaka averaged a career-low 1.4 blocks per game, which is a far cry from his All-Defensive First Team trio of seasons from 2011-12 to 2013-14, when he averaged 3.7, 3.0, and 2.7.

His 4.0% block percentage was also a career-worst, and his 46.7% defensive field goal percentage at the rim was the highest he’s registered since started tracking the stat four years ago.

He still graded out as one of the best on the team in each of those categories, but the fact that the Raptors had a defensive rating of 105.0 (points allowed per 100 possessions) in Ibaka’s 712 minutes of action after the All-Star break and 98.5 in his 493 minutes on the bench doesn’t suggest that he was making the impact one would hope he would have on that end of the floor.

It was more of the same in the playoffs too, as the Raptors had a defensive rating of 109.7 during Serge’s 306 minutes on the floor, and 104.6 in his 174 minutes riding the pine during their 10 postseason contests. The Raptors may have been the Association’s 16th-ranked defense prior to the Ibaka acquisition and the fourth-ranked in defensive efficiency after it, but it turns out that Ibaka didn’t have a huge hand in that swing individually, according to the numbers.

The Grade: A-

Overall, when you consider the fact that raw rookie Siakam started 38 games for the Raptors this season prior to Ibaka’s arrival (he who averaged all of 4.2 points and 3.4 rebounds this season), it’s hard to look at the Ibaka acquisition as anything less than a great move and a clear upgrade. For that reason alone, Serge deserves a high mark.

His positional versatility allowed him to pair with many different guys in the frontcourt to varying degrees of success (mostly positive), and his defensive presence (even if slightly down from previous years) was a deterrent for opposing offenses and something the Raptors had been sorely lacking for years.

There are many different ways this off-season could shake out, but if re-signing Ibaka is in the plans, it would be hard to fault the Raptors for giving him a more extended look for everything he brings to the table on both sides of the ball.

And if he leaves, we’ll always have the nearly three months of timely threes, the scattered finger waves, and the punch to Robin Lopez’s face (and the subsequent Raptors victory over the Bulls for the first time in what felt like a decade) to remember him by.