Serge and the Raptors Coming to the Playoffs Near You

Serge Ibaka will play for his third team in less than 12 months. Traded from Oklahoma City to the Orlando Magic in June of 2016, Ibaka now is a member of the Toronto Raptors who were desperately seeking help in the front court, particularly a stretch four who could score and rebound. Additionally, Ibaka can add another year in the playoffs to his resume; 7 playoff appearances in 8 seasons. Ibaka will be a free agent come July 1st and the Raptors have put themselves first in line to keep Ibaka long term.

Ibaka’s old team, the Orlando Magic, was compensated with Terrence Ross and a first round draft pick. The Magic traded Victor Oladipo to the Thunder for Ibaka last June so if we are adding up the scorecard for Oladipo all the Magic will have to show for it is a late round pick and the former slam dunk champion Ross. Advantage Raptors. They got rid of Ross’ contract which had two more years remaining, no opt-outs.

The Raptors needed a definite upgrade for the playoffs. They have a dynamic back court in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry but their power forward contingency is weak. They have the worst power forward scoring in the league, 13.0 points. Ibaka scores more than that by himself, 15 points a game. The Raptors power forwards average 8.9 rebounds as a group. Ibaka almost averages 8 rebounds by himself. So as trades go, this was a homerun for the Raptors.

Serge Ibaka was the 24th pick in the 2008 NBA draft, the first player from the Congo ever drafted. He was born to athletes. His father played for the Congolese national team, his mother played for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His father, after helping his family escape war, was captured and was a political prisoner. The Ibakas had 18 children; Serge was number 16. Most of his basketball training was learned in Spain and when the Thunder drafted him they stashed him in Europe for a year, bought out his contract and then brought him to the states.

His rookie year he played 73 games. Ibaka has only had one season [out of eight] of not playing 70 games. His 18 minutes as a rookie spiraled to 27 minutes his second year and the last five seasons he has been a 30 minutes per game player. The last five seasons,  he has averaged double figures in scoring. This year (and 2013-14) he is tied for 15.1 points per game.

Versatile, Ibaka is a good passer, has a nice mid-range touch, can grab the rebound. He has toughness, though in 2013 he punched Blake Griffin in the groin. That aside, he won’t be an All-Star anytime soon. He is the stereotypical third option that can possibly take a team that hovers around second round playoff status to a conference final.

This season, he has a career high in shots attempted and in shots made even though he is playing the fewest minutes in five seasons. One of the issues that worried Sam Presti and the Thunder organization was that Ibaka’s efficiency was taking a turn [for the worse] which is an indication that a player is starting to descend. He hasn’t shot 50%+ in three seasons but his three ball is falling through the net at a nice clip and he is making the most threes of his career. The Ibaka of old, nearly nine rebounds a game, has disappeared, but 7 rebounds is doable. Still, there is concern that his numbers continue to trend downward. He’s not blocking shots either. In 2011-12 he averaged 3.7 blocks per game. This season that number is 1.6, his worst mark since his rookie year.

He is not the defensive player he used to be, ranking 35th among power forwards (Defensive Real Plus-Minus) trailing Jordan Hill and Nikola Jokic. But he is only 28 years old. Still, the question looms. Is he going to get better, stay the same or devolve?

The Raptors have the off-season advantage of signing Ibaka to a lucrative deal, not a max salary, but still a lot of zeroes on July 1st.

But the summer is way, way off. It is the postseason and a matchup with the Hawks and Cavaliers that made this trade a winner. The Hawks have an athletic Paul Millsap who would have to cover multiple areas of the court to guard Ibaka. The Cavs have Kevin Love on the shelf and Derrick Williams as a replacement. Ibaka is an equalizer for other playoff teams. He is a better all around player than Markieff Morris of the Wizards. He forces Taj Gibson of the Bulls to leave the paint. He would have to face a second year and inexperienced player in Myles Turner of the Pacers. The only power forward he’d struggle against is the Celtics Al Horford.

Even as Ibaka is glad for a get out of jail free card from the losing Magic, there is pressure in being presented as a savior. He is not. He makes the Raptors a better team. He increases their playoff chances but only if DeMar DeRozan willingly gives up some of his shots and lets Serge be Serge. But however it shakes out, the Raptors won the trading deadline sweepstakes.

Now can they beat the Cavs?


photo via llananba