Last summer, one of the key questions facing the Toronto Raptors concerned Serge Ibaka: Was free-agent-to-be the long-term answer for the team at the power forward position?
And if the answer was yes, how much would it cost to keep him?
At the time, Masai Ujiri decided the answer to the first was indeed affirmative; the answer to the second would turn out to be three years and $65 million.
A year later the answer to the first question is much more cloudy, and the cost seems very high.
Numbers-wise, you might think Ibaka gave the Raptors what you’d expect this season, based on his career to date. Looking at the per-36 stats (as along with all of the starters, Ibaka’s minutes were reduced in the Raptors’ expanded rotation this season), Ibaka averaged 16.5 points and 8.2 rebounds, which is fairly consistent with his career.
But if you actually watched Ibaka week-to-week, you’d liken him to a Forrest Gump metaphor: you never knew what you were going to get. He’d score 20, then 18, then 19, and then follow it up with nine, then seven. He’d grab five boards and turn the ball over twice one night, then grab 12 rebounds and block three shots the next. (Also, much was made of “rested Serge”—the idea that Ibaka played better with more rest in between games. But other than an expected dip on back-to-backs, Ibaka’s net rating and true shooting percentages ended up fairly consistent on one, two, and three-days rest.)
And then there’s the postseason performance, which we’ll get into more below, but was subpar, to say the least.
All of which is to say, as the third-highest paid player on the team (behind only the all-star backcourt), and a nine-year veteran with deep playoff experience, you would expect not necessarily better numbers, but a more consistent contribution on a night-to-night basis. You would like to feel more trust and confidence in your starting power forward. You’d like to know what you’re gonna get! Alas.
We’ll always have Game 1.
The Raptors finally broke their “Game 1 curse” this season; after 12 straight playoff Game 1 losses, and going 0-6 all-time at home in playoff game 1s, the Raptors beat the Wizards 114-106 on April 14 in Game 1 of their first round series. And Serge Ibaka was fantastic! 23 points on 8-for-11 shooting, 12 rebounds, two blocks, and only one turnover. He was a true difference maker; if Ibaka doesn’t have that game, the Raptors would still be facing those Game 1 questions.
One game doesn’t make a season though. What else did Ibaka do between October and April?
He led the team in blocks with 1.3 per game (1.7 per 36), good for fifth in the league among power forwards. And some of them were absolutely highlight-worthy, none more so than the finger-wag on Giants of Africa Night, with Dikembe Motumbo himself in the house.
One other piece of good news: The Ibaka-Jonas Valanciunas frontcourt pairing was generally successful! There were certainly questions as to whether these two could play well together, with the thinking that Ibaka is more of a centre in today’s NBA, but after 72 games and more than 1400 minutes together, the duo had a positive 6.9 net rating. The Raptors starting lineup, featuring Ibaka, Valanciunas, OG Anunoby, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan was very successful, with an 11.2 net rating (not to mention leading the charge to a franchise-record 59 wins).
I think the questions of whether the two big men can play together is settled. Ibaka fits in just fine with this Raptors team.
Now, the question of whether or not that frontcourt was worth the $36 million the Raptors paid them, well...
We’ll always have... the rest of the playoffs?
After the stellar game 1 mentioned above, Ibaka came back to Earth in game 2 of the Washington series (10 points on 4-of-11, nine boards, three blocks), and then completely fell off the face of the Earth the whole rest of the postseason. He averaged 6.75 points, 5.5 rebounds, and one block per game the rest of the way (with 14 turnovers!), well off of his regular season averages and his career postseason averages.
Worst of all was the complete defensive breakdown in the second-round series against the Cavs. To be fair, no one on the Raptors distinguished themselves in that series, but Ibaka looked lost, constantly caught looking at the ball and losing his man, resulting in back cuts for easy layups or open 3-pointers (all too often accompanied by some of the worst closeouts you’ll see, with Ibaka flailing his arms wildly and jumping in to the first row).
It culminated in a benching less than two minutes into the second half of Game 2 against the Cavs, and his removal from the starting lineup for Game 3.
As much as Ibaka’s presence helped the Raptors win Game 1 against Washington, his poor showing helped the Cavaliers sweep the Raptors. Many of his inconsistent nights in the regular season could be covered up by the Bench Mob, but with Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl appearing somewhat shaky in their first real postseason minutes, and the matchup problems the Cavs represent, Ibaka was exposed.
The Grade: C-
Ibaka’s season was up-and-down, but ultimately average, and that was good for a B- in my book. But the postseason was so awful, he loses a full mark. Being average in class all year is one thing, but flunking the final exam so badly is gonna cost you.
What can we expect from Ibaka going forward? Aside from night-to-night consistency, you’d like to see him improve his handle, at least to the point where running an action with him where he touches the ball has more potential positive outcomes aside from pump-fake and/or jump shot. You’d like to see him be more aware of when to step in when Poeltl or Valanciunas is helping a guard and is thus out of position for a rebound. But at his age, at this point in his career, he’s unlikely to transform his game in any meaningful way; he is what he is.
That, combined with his salary, likely means we’re stuck with him. His average play doesn’t spark desire in any other team, and even if it did, his expensive contract means it’s going to incredibly difficult to receive actual value for him on the trade market (without attaching a young player or future first-round pick to a deal).
Ibaka brings many things to the table that the Raptors need, in terms of shot-blocking and toughness, but is an inconsistent jump shooter and below-average rebounder. You’d really like to get more from a player earning that salary. But Ibaka is part of Ujiri’s three-year window; even if Ujiri runs it all back with the same group next year, Serge will contribute to another winning team, and we can all cross our fingers that he’ll have more to offer in the postseason.
And if he doesn’t, well, then there’ll only be one year left on Ujiri’s window, and Ibaka’s contract.