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Player Review: Serge Ibaka enjoys another resurgence with the Raptors

Whether he’s starting or coming off the bench, Serge Ibaka’s stellar play has put Toronto’s front office in quite a precarious position. Let’s look back at his year.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Before thinking about Serge Ibaka’s work for the Raptors in 2020, we have to go back a little further. His 2018-19 season was a career year. Despite being given a new role under a new coach, Ibaka was integral to Toronto’s championship win. That success laid the ground work for where we are now with Ibaka. A year later and on the final year of his contract, Ibaka’s latest resurgence could price him out of Toronto’s free agency plans. In what is considered a weak free agency class, Serge Ibaka is now one of the best free agents available — especially at his position.

Toronto’s pursuit for Giannis Antetokounmpo is the worst kept secret in the basketball world. With just one year remaining on Antetokounmpo’s contract, Toronto is keen to have the books cleared for him when he is available next off-season. But for Serge Ibaka, who just turned 31, he’s in position for one last payday — a deserved one too. It is no surprise that Ibaka has enjoyed his tenure in Toronto, even going as far as saying he would like to stay.

There are plenty of suitors for Ibaka, who has modified his game over the years to better adjust to the modern NBA. The Houston Rockets, who have been chasing him over the years, could drop their small-ball lineup and match him up with old teammates James Harden and Russell Westbrook as a rim-protecting, floor spacing big. Eastern Conference Champions Miami Heat could pair him beside Bam Adebayo, though they’d have to maneuver their way into cap space and let either Meyers Leonard or Canadian Kelly Olynyk go. There are also the teams like The New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets — or perhaps the soon-to-be-champion Lakers — who could make a play for Ibaka.

Nevertheless, only one team has Serge’s Bird rights, and if Toronto chooses to offer him the deal he wants, Ibaka’s decision could be an easy one. Let’s review what the Raptors would be bringing back to the team after Ibaka’s 2019-20 season.

On the Court

With a shortened season in which Ibaka played only 57 games, he averaged a career high 15.4 points per game and shot 51 percent from the field. His perimeter shooting returned from 29 percent last season to 38 percent this season on 3.0 attempts per game. An injury-riddled season for Marc Gasol gave Ibaka the opportunity to start 27 games, with the Raptors going 19-8 in those games. Still, Ibaka was often at his best coming off the bench. His per 36 minutes have him averaging 20.5 points and 11 rebounds per game — and more often than not Ibaka was ready to give Toronto a boost.

For a high point on the season, loook no further than Ibaka’s season-high of 30 points against Indiana during Toronto’s franchise best 15-game win streak. In that one, he hit the game-winning three to cap off an 11-0 run in one of the more exciting games of the season.

Ibaka also had a 27-point, 13 rebound performance against the reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz (which was the final non-bubble regular season game) with a career-high five 3s. In the Bubble, Ibaka played only five of the eight seeding games and managed to hit his season average just once in a close win against the Miami Heat. In the first round of the playoffs, however, he returned to form. Ibaka scored over 20 in three of the four wins against the Brooklyn Nets, including a 27-point (on 12-of-14 shooting), 15-rebound performance in the series clinching Game 4 win.

And while the Raptors didn’t come out on top in the second round, Ibaka played well against the Celtics scoring 15, 17, and 18 points early in the series. He suffered an ankle injury in Game 5, but kept on going. Despite being limited by the sprained ankle in Games 6 and 7, Ibaka still perfomed well. He was a +6 in Game 7, which was decided by a 5-point margin.

Off the Court

Last season, Ibaka launched his cooking show, How Hungry Are You?, in which he interviewed his teammates along with others while preparing food for them. This season, Ibaka diversified and brought out a now fashion show on Uninterrupted, Avec Classe. He invited Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol, and, most memorably, his young teammate OG Anunoby.

Who could forget the Great Scarf Battle of 2020?

And the Big Scarf Energy the team carried in their 15-game win streak.

Uncertain Times

If Ibaka has already played his last game for the Toronto Raptors, he’ll forever be known as one of the pieces in Toronto’s turnaround as a franchise. Coming mid-way through the 2016-17 season in a trade that sent Terrence Ross to Orlando, he filled the hole at forward that had been open since the departure of Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010. He struggled at times playing besides Jonas Valanciunas, especially in back-to-back sweeps at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But Ibaka kept working.

It all changed with the hiring of Nick Nurse and the emergence of Pascal Siakam in Toronto. While Ibaka was relegated to a bench role, he was finally able to play as the lone big on the floor which matched him up against the slower 5s rather than the speedier stretch 4s. He was a key part of Toronto’s championship campaign, hitting a memorable jab-step corner 3 in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers, as well as providing much needed rim protection in the Finals against the Golden State Warriors.

This season Ibaka improved with the confidence and carryover from last season. He became more efficient while playing the best basketball of his career. If this is it for Serge Ibaka and the Toronto Raptors, we’ll always remember the championship pedigree he helped bring to Canada’s only NBA franchise.