Serge the Resurgent

Serge Ibaka is Turning Back the Clock

When the season opened on October 17th, I watched Serge Ibaka put together a dreadful performance. It wasn’t the first time I had seen this as a Raptors fan, it had sadly become the norm. I expressed my annoyance with Serge aloud to myself, and online where I complained that Serge was both “washed up” and “trash”.

For every correct call I will make as a sports fan (I was on the Pascal Siakam bandwagon before he was even drafted in the NBA and I will never let people forget it), I will vocalize three times as many incorrect opinions. It’s why I’m simply a fan and the guys like Masai Ujiri are getting paid to make the actual correct decisions.

Today, I’m simply here to apologize to Serge Ibaka and ask for repentance. Serge, I was wrong to call you trash and make fun of your potentially misleading age. I was wrong to doubt you for taking shots that weren’t falling in the season opener. Simply put, I was wrong period.

Since that first game where Ibaka was truly brutal (nine points on 2 of 10 shooting, fouled out in 27 minutes), he’s started to look like Oklahoma City Thunder Ibaka again. That’s the form the Orlando Magic paid for but never got to see (and traded away for Terrence Ross-yikes) and the form we’ve previously seen very little in Toronto. Ibaka has scored in double digits in every game since the season opener and shot below 50% only once.

Most recently, he made 18 consecutive field goal attempts across two games and in his most recent outing against Utah, Ibaka went 8 for 8 in 13 minutes, finding a way to foul out in the process (not his fault, the referees had a brutal game in terms of managing their whistles). He’s been playing like I do when I turn my shooting sliders all the way to 100 on NBA 2k and has become impervious to missing.

Don’t just take the raw field goal percentages as evidence, those don’t often give us the full picture. Ibaka’s true shooting percentage is currently .637 despite that brutal first game. He hasn’t been near the .600 threshold since 2012–13. Notably, Ibaka has taken far fewer three point attempts this season, where only 17.9% of his attempts have come from behind the line. Compare that to his previous one and a half seasons with Toronto, where 37% of his attempts were threes, and you can see where the efficiency has improved.

I’ve never been opposed to big men shooting three pointers. Capable shooters from downtown do wonders in terms of opening the offense for ball handlers. If you’ve got a lineup with few shooters, the paint clogs up and it becomes incredibly difficult to score in the paint. It’s something Raptors fans are familiar with considering their last few playoff performances. Ibaka himself is a good three-point shooter, making 36% of his attempts for his career, but he has other skills that are best used inside the paint.

A major reason for Ibaka’s reduction in three-point attempts has been newly minted coach Nick Nurse’s lineups. He figured out very quickly what most analysts have been shouting since Ibaka arrived in Toronto: Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas are not fit to play together. It’s the exact same thing we witnessed when Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan were forced to share the court. Their skills did not mesh with each other and everybody except the head coach seemed to realize it.

Instead of trying to force two players whose skills don’t work together into sharing the court, Nurse has alternated them in the starting lineup. Opposing teams featuring bigger, more traditional centers means that Valanciunas gets the start. When a team that operates with a smaller “small ball” big man as its starter, Ibaka gets the nod as the starting 5.

This means that Ibaka has not been forced to play as the power forward, the position he’s been considered his entire career. In fact, per Basketball Reference, Ibaka has spent 100% of his time on the court as a center. As the 5, Ibaka’s role has been more about setting picks for Kyle Lowry and the other ball handlers and less about spacing the floor as a shooter. It’s also made him a much more utilized target as the roller in the pick and roll where Ibaka’s athleticism and quickness really shines.

Because Ibaka has the skill set to make threes, it makes him a very difficult cover as a center. When the play breaks down and the shot clock starts to dwindle, Ibaka is still an option to kick out to for a late three. After setting a screen, Ibaka also has the option of popping out to the three-point line instead of rolling to the rim. It creates so much confusion for the defense who are already trying to navigate a screen and must now communicate who follows Ibaka on the perimeter.

Defensively, Ibaka has also thrived at the 5. In the past, he’s looked older and slower trying to guard the new breed of NBA power forwards. Facing centers, Ibaka has looked every bit like his former all-defensive self. He’s protecting the rim from ball penetration and altering a lot of shots, generally making life difficult for those who dare oppose him. The one drawback to Ibaka being thrown into the center position is that he is not a terrific defensive rebounder, which has appeared to be one of Toronto’s early flaws. The team must commit to rebounding by committee so that Ibaka isn’t constantly punching above his weight class and exerting all his energy trying to pull down boards.

I can’t imagine how demoralizing it must be to face the Raptors defense when it is fully committed. Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Siakam, and Ibaka are all fantastic defenders. Their fluidity has allowed them to switch on essentially every screen without facing any consequences. Lowry might guard a big man as easily as Ibaka defends a guard. They are active in the passing lanes, try to alter every shot attempt and suffocating the ball handling as soon as the ball crosses half court. As its pivot, Ibaka takes a lot of responsibility on the defensive end and so far, he’s more than delivered.

Of course, Ibaka is unbelievably hot right now. He’s bound to come down from the torrid shooting pace he’s been on in the last two games. Nobody outside of shooting deities like Steph Curry can shoot like Ibaka has for an entire season. Still, when he inevitably cools down a little, Ibaka will figure as an important part of the team’s success. He is thriving as a reformed center and has given a jolt of energy to a Raptors defense that appears terrifying when all its pieces are available. On offense, he will continue to provide some important scoring down low, forcing defenses to stick with him.

So once again Serge, I’m sorry for ever doubting you. Keep up the good work.

Your good friend,