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Player Preview: Serge Ibaka, the unlikely fan-favourite

Serge Ibaka will forever be a legend after the events of last season. Can he replicate his transformative year? And will he get a chance to do it in Toronto?

NBA: Finals-Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

No player’s image in the eyes of Raptors fans underwent a more dramatic transformation during the title season than Serge Ibaka’s. We’re 18 months removed from Ibaka looking just about finished as a meaningful cog for a meaningful NBA team. Over 10 postseason games against the Wizards and Cavs in 2018, Ibaka devolved from an efficient and essential supporting starter into an unplayable mess on a disaster contract. While he certainly wasn’t the lone reason the Raptors fell short in four games against Cleveland, he was probably the guy Raptors fans were most peeved with in the aftermath, non-Dwane Casey Division.

A year and a half, a position change, and a charming run as a budding Food Network star later, Ibaka’s an NBA champ and an unimpeachable Toronto fan-favourite for life.

Ibaka’s career might have been saved when Nick Nurse moved him to center full-time. After years of being shoe-horned alongside hulking bigs in OKC, Orlando and Toronto, a platoon with Jonas Valanciunas (and later Marc Gasol) saw Ibaka at long last find himself at the position at which he’d been most suited to since like 2014. He swapped playing time for efficiency, and with a steady diet of wildly accurate mid-range Js was the team’s second-leading scorer up until a late Pascal Siakam push. No longer asked to hang with smaller, stretchier fours on defense, Ibaka was free to hang out where he’s most useful on that end — near the rim, ready to swat hapless layup tries away and drop a pair of triumphant thumbs to the floor.

Off the court, he helped fans get more acquainted with the most memorable and important team in franchise history. He also choked out Marquese Chriss, who had it coming.

Come playoff time, his output dropped off as Gasol proved to be the more match-up proof of Toronto’s centers. But that didn’t preclude Ibaka from putting his stamp on the title run. Never, ever forget that Ibaka hit a Game 7 dagger against the Sixers before Kawhi made that a mainstream activity.

His third-quarter outburst in Game 4 of the Finals was what made it okay to believe the Raptors just might do the thing. He closed off a stirring playoff run with the best play made by any Raptor over the course of the spring when he snatched Larry O’B from the billionaire goofus owner and delivered it to Kyle Lowry.

Serge is unbelievably tight, and he’s around for at least one more year. Soak it the hell up.

Role on the Team

Why fix what clearly wasn’t broken last season? Ibaka figures to be part of a see-sawing center duo with Gasol once again in 2019-20. While Gasol is likely to start more often, there will surely be cause for Ibaka to get run to open games as well. Gasol’s aging and probably still hungover from the summer; he’ll get nights off here and there to keep him fresh for the most crucial portion of the schedule. When more nimble bigs get the call to start for opposing teams, Ibaka may get the tap on the shoulder as well.

When he’s not in the starting five, Ibaka figures to form part of the second unit’s backbone. Who fills the two, three and four spots between Ibaka and, presumably, Fred VanVleet in the second unit is anybody’s guess as the wings in camp vie for Nick Nurse’s hard-to-earn trust. Any hope the bench has of rekindling its past Mobbing glory will be tied to Ibaka once again being a willing and reliable bucket-getter. His 15.7 shot attempts per 36 minutes last year ranked second among Raps regulars by season’s end behind only Kawhi Leonard. With a whole whack of shots per game now playing in Los Angeles, it’s likely his light will be even greener than it was in 2018-19.

Needs Improvement

On the note of letting it rip, it sure would be cool if Ibaka could rediscover his range from beyond 18 feet or so. After shooting nearly 40 percent between the deadline and season’s end upon arriving in Toronto two and a half years ago, and canning 36 percent of his threes in 2017-18, Ibaka’s volume and accuracy from outside both took a nose-dive last year; he hit just 29 percent of his meager 2.3 attempts a night.

Even a slight revival of that outside stroke — a mark somewhere near his career average of 35 — would go a long way towards injecting some space and shooting into what figures to be an offensively starved second unit.

His touch around the basket will be vital, too. He’s a steady, sometimes ferocious finisher around the rim; 76 percent of his attempts inside three feet last season were cash. So much of that success was due to Kyle Lowry’s precise passing in the pick-and-roll. Nobody ate more as a result of Lowry’s famed pocket pass more than Ibaka last season. Meanwhile, the chemistry between Ibaka and his likely most common pick-and-roll buddy this season, Fred VanVleet, was always a little more iffy. That’s not all on Ibaka — VanVleet’s decisiveness in traffic isn’t Lowry-quick, and he loves himself a long dribble from time to time — but if Ibaka can massage that relationship and become a more presentable target for VanVleet on both the roll and the pop, there forms the outline of a 1-2 punch that can bludgeon second units.

Of course none of Serge’s on-court improvements this season will matter if he doesn’t cut the shit and start using fresh herbs in place of packaged cilantro gloop for his stunt cooking this year.

Why.

Expectation

From all accounts out of Raptors training camp, Ibaka looks excellent early on. After tip-toeing his way through the sun-baked streets of Italy and setting triangular sunglasses up to be the eye-wear trend of the 2020s, Ibaka got hard back to work. Put in a similar position to succeed as he was last year, there’s no reason to doubt that he can turn in a replica season to 2018-19, just with fewer starts.

If the bench proves to be terribly stagnant offensively, then maybe his numbers will tank. That, or he could in turn see more run with the starters as Gasol gets tasked with greasing the wheels of the reserve groups.

It’s also worth noting that Ibaka’s in a contract year, and will be vying for what could be his last substantial payday. Don’t expect to see many nights where he hunts an ejection in the second quarter because he’s feeling sleepy. Though, with the Lopez brothers playing for the same team now, I can’t imagine it’ll be a punch-free season for Serge, even if the title has relaxed him a touch.

Of course related to the looming end of his contract, and baked into any conversation about Ibaka this season, will be the prospect of a mid-season trade. If the Raptors can collect a haul for a 30-year-old fifth or sixth option who makes north of $20 million against the cap, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster will think long and hard about it, sentimentality be damned. Problem is, not many teams are ever eager to give up a haul for a 30-year-old fifth or sixth option who makes north of $20 million against the cap, no matter how good their cooking show may be.

If the Raptors are competitive — and they should be — Ibaka will be more valuable to Toronto as part of a valiant title defense than the couple second-rounders and cap-filler trash he might fetch in a trade. If this is the last season for Ibaka in Toronto, why not have his tenure end nobly in the spring as opposed to abruptly and coldly at the deadline? After Ibaka’s renaissance last season, the former is the kind of goodbye he and Raptors fans deserve to share.