Re-Sergence: Are the Raptors finally getting the Ibaka they traded for?
At the season’s quarter-way mark, the Toronto Raptors are the #1 team in the NBA. As a lifelong — and sometimes obsessive — Raptors fan, few things are as satisfying to write as that sentence.
The Raptors are 19–4(!), have a true superstar in Kawhi Leonard (a fact that was further proven in his 37-point effort in the Raptors’ first win over the Warriors since 2014), and seemingly have found the right balance of experience, athleticism, and modern style-of-play that they’ve struggled to achieve in years past.
But for all the (deserved) hype that Kawhi, Lowry, and the rapidly-ascending Pascal Siakam are getting across the NBA world, perhaps the most crucial — and unexpected — component to this early-season success is the crazy production of the formerly-useless Serge Ibaka.
The dark days
As the previous sentence suggests, I am a recovering Serge Ibaka hater. Despite his likeable off-the-court persona, he quickly made his way onto my all-time shit list, joining the likes of Hedo “Ball” Turkoglu and Andrea “Primo Pasta” Bargnani. Maybe it was because we put unfair expectations on what we thought he’d be, but when you are paying someone over $20 million/year to play basketball, it is hard to justify any critique as unfair.
Although his stats still left a lot to be desired, it was the eye test where his trash level was most visibly obvious; it truly pained me to watch him play. A guy who made his name as a I-want-it-more-than-you defensive monster, looked more like a glory-days rec centre player who wanted to do nothing but take awful shots and play lazy defence. He looked perennially lost on offence, dribbled like an over-sized infant, and struggled with basketball fundamentals like defending the pick and roll, boxing out, and even cleanly catching a chest pass. To put it bluntly, the gap between what he needed to be and where the NBA was going was seemingly past the point of no return, and, in my opinion, the clock on his time as a viable NBA player was quickly approaching midnight.
How hungry are you?
But after the Raptors got Kawhi Leonard, short of us flipping Serge for a solid, appropriately-paid bench player, the next best thing would’ve been for Serge to rediscover at least some of his tenacity and come back as a neutral-to-positive contributor for a Raptors team with a now unprecedented title-contending ceiling.
So needless to say, I was absolutely thrilled when he heeded my advice and started…a YouTube cooking show. What better way to rediscover your offensive efficiency and shot blocking prowess than by broadcasting to the world that you eat exotic food drowned in way too much salt?
It appeared as though we were in for more of the same from the former defensive player of the year candidate, but luckily, in addition to it being the title of his YouTube series, Serge apparently did some self-reflection and asked himself the same question: How hungry are you?
Playing like a man on a (unsustainable?) mission
This was always slated to be a pivotal season for Serge. Another subpar campaign would make it three disappointing seasons in a row and not only cement his reputation as a lost cause to all Raptors fan, but to the broader basketball world as well. As an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2020, this was the season to prove that he’s still got it (or at least some semblance of it).
Well, so far so good.
Simply put, Serge is playing out of his mind. At first, I scoffed at his attempt to win us back with a few great performances to start the season, but eventually one has to admit that something is no longer an outlier, and is instead the new norm.
Although I’m now convinced that the Serge of last year is long gone, I’m not ready to admit that this level of production is the new norm. And that is fine, because somewhere in the middle still leaves the Raptors with a versatile big man that contributes on both ends of the floor on a nightly basis.
The reason for my hesitance is simple: if numbers seem too good to be true, they typically are. And at face value, Serge’s numbers appear too good to be true. At least, for the most part.
No matter how you cut it, Serge’s numbers — virtually across the board — are stellar, but I believe these stats can be categorized into two simple buckets: sustainable or unsustainable.
The table below compares Serge’s traditional stats between this year and last year and the numbers speak for themselves.
Not only compared to last year, but Serge is currently averaging a career high in points, assists, steals, and 2-point field goal percentage. He is also putting up his best rebounding numbers since becoming a Raptor. The concept of Ibaka continuing to have a career year in these categories is totally sustainable, but the fine print behind some of these improvements may not be.
Hard in the paint
From a scoring perspective, the table tells the obvious story that he has put a conscious effort — either willingly or forcefully — into shooting less 3s and more 2s. It is clearly working great thus far because not only is his overall scoring and percentage up, but he’s also averaging a career high 9.5 points in the paint per game. This is more than double his points in the paint average from last year. And it isn’t rocket science either — he is scoring more in the paint because he is shooting more in the paint (52% of his FGs this year are from <10 feet compared to 32% last year). This is great news for everyone and it has positive trickle down effects on other parts of his game as well.
Just by being a more frequent presence in the paint, Ibaka is putting himself in position to do other good things. Beyond the improved offensive rebounding numbers, he is drawing more fouls (2.4 per game versus 1.3) and, as a result, getting an extra free throw each night. Taken together, his rekindled love for the paint is not only great for the team, but also appears to be sustainable.
When you ask someone to think of knockdown shooters, there are a handful of names that will likely come up no matter who you ask: Steph Curry, JJ Redick, Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant. And when talking specifically about mid-range shooters, one might think of LaMarcus Aldridge or Toronto’s former king of the mid-range DeMar DeRozan. Well, you better start putting Ibaka on your list. What was once the most frustrating part about Serge’s game, has somehow become the most reliant: the mid-range jumper. He is shooting 71% (like, come on) from 15–19 feet — a shooting range that has been almost vilified in the analytics era. That percentage is good enough to put him first in the league amongst individuals who shoot at least one of these shots per game (and ahead of all the aforementioned names by a healthy margin).
As fun as this stretch is, remember that it was only 7 months ago when you were screaming at your TV like a mad man after watching another bricked Ibaka jump shot. But even if he regresses to his mid-range numbers from last year (48%), it shouldn’t have that big an impact on the Raptors’ success, as long as he remains committed to the paint and doesn’t start settling again. Anyway, I feel like I can say with the utmost confidence that this 71% undoubtedly falls into the category of unsustainable.
As long as the effort is there
One of my main beefs with Ibaka historically has been that it looked like he took a lot of possessions off. Whether it was not putting a hand up to contest, setting a sloppy pick, or slowly jogging back on defense, his physical gaffes mixed with his mental spaciness made it hard to root for him at times.
This year, however, it looks like he is truly energized and playing with a purpose. Although the “hustle” stats are very similar to last year, with the exception that he is contesting an extra shot-and-a-half per game, this is where the eye test results are night and day. He is being more vocal on defense, keeping his hands up, and showing us some of that swagger that seemed flat out fraudulent in the past.
On offense, his screen assists — a pick that directly results in a made shot — are leading to 3.1 more points per game and that extra offensive rebound he’s grabbing each night is huge in a league that is increasingly built on maximizing your number of possessions. This hustle area is the one that excites me the most because even on nights where his shot is off or he makes a few of his patented dumbfounding decisions, his current level of effort and tenacity still brings value (something that couldn’t be said last year). And the fact that he’s this committed, this early in the season is what all Toronto fans have been waiting to see since day one of Serge’s Raptors tenure. As long as Nurse keeps him involved offensively, I don’t see Ibaka’s engagement wavering on a team with a real title shot. Hustle = Sustainable.
Lest we forget
In conclusion, Serge has been a noteworthy bright spot in a quarter-season of Toronto basketball that has been full of them. His shooting and paint scoring has been integral to their top-three offense, and his consistent energy on defense has been critical in many-a-fourth-quarter. Even his thumbs down block celebration — once an automatic cause for a sigh and/or eyeroll — is now a legitimate catalyst to a team that has a more-than-viable path to the NBA Finals.
However, I caution you to not assume this level of success will persist all year.
Don’t be the blind optimist preaching to your friends that Serge just needed the right system around him to flourish and this is the only beginning.
At the same time, don’t be the annoying hater that secretly prays for the catastrophic Serge drop-off solely so you can say I told you so.
Instead, be the pragmatic believer that will genuinely root for this to continue as long as possible, while understanding that a correction is likely to come; that gets hyped for those Serge hustle plays we’ve been dying to see on a consistent basis, even if they sometimes lead to bad turnovers.
Ultimately, be the person that is willing to accept that the old Serge is gone, but that the new Serge is still a work in progress; a work in progress that holds the key to unlocking something Toronto fans have never seen before: Raptors basketball in June.