The restarted Raptors are still seeking to defend their 2019 NBA title. For our latest series, Things for the Rings, we’ll break down what each essential person on the team can do to answer the major question on every fan’s mind: What does each Raptor need to do to make a Toronto repeat reality?
Thing for the Ring: Don’t change a thing
There has been a debate all season long about which of the two Raptor’s free agent big men the team should sign next season. (I think this discounts their ability to bring back both given the current financial reality, player age, and career-goal factors — but that’s not as fun an argument).
The general consensus has been Gasol. He’s a defensive savant who is also one of the league’s best play-makers from the centre position, and while he looks to have lost a good chunk of his ability to score in the post, he’s elite for a centre from distance. Keeping Gasol is not just a defensible answer, it very well may be the right one.
Still, Ibaka has been good this season. A year after the Congolese big man suffered through the worst three-point shooting season of his career, Ibaka is back to being one of the most consistent frontcourt threats from distance. That’s led to the best scoring season of his career. Ibaka is averaging 16 points a game on the second-best effective field-goal percentage of his career.
Ibaka has also been strong on the other end of the court. After a couple of worrying seasons early in his Toronto career, Ibaka is back to rebounding the ball at a solid level — tying his career high by grabbing 10.8 boards per-36 minutes. Meanwhile, his defensive rating — a measure of how many points he gives up over 100 possessions — is back at a very solid 104. Add it all up, and Ibaka is part of a unique group of players.
Boards and Bombs
Ibaka is one of a small handful of NBA players grabbing at least 15 percent of available rebounds, and shooting at least 37 percent from three (on a decent volume). On top of that, he’s been better overall defensively than basically everyone else on this list.
It feel like Toronto fans, and the league as a whole, have sort of forgotten how good Ibaka is. He’s not a perfect player, but he’s one of the very best stretch fours in the game — hell, he helped create that term. When added to his solid ability to corral smaller ball-handlers, and the fact he’s added a little play-making and off-the-bounce verve to his game, Ibaka has proven himself to be a valuable player.
Choose him over Gasol? Maybe not, but the choice — especially given their relative ages — is closer than you might think. (But again, why not both?)
Can He Do It?
Absolutely. If anything, last year was the outlier when Ibaka sunk to under 30-percent from three. That iffy outside shot led to some big questions for Toronto’s playoff run. Would teams leave Ibaka open beyond the arc? (Sort of); and could he hit enough threes to keep the offense humming? (No, he hit 23.7 percent, and saw his minutes cut to just 21 a game). Still, even that Ibaka did enough with rebounding, sticking jumpers and put-backs, and surviving in the pick-and-roll, to be a net positive.
Chances of It Happening: 9 out of 10
Ibaka is a career 36 percent shooter from beyond the arc in the regular season. In the playoffs? 36 percent. Add to that, that he’s a better shooter now than “average Ibaka” and this seems like the safest bet on the board.
Expect Ibaka to do as he has all season: hit his threes, help Toronto survive on the boards, and defend at a strong level. If he does, then he’ll have handled his role in Toronto’s title defense avec classe.