Illustration by Jeffrey Liu

If there was any argument for Serge Ibaka actually being his listed age of 28, his game on December 5th would be it. In that game against the Phoenix Suns, we all caught a glimpse of vintage Ibaka. His devastating blocks followed by finger wags. His absolute command of the low block. We were reminded of how dominant the 6-10 power forward was five years ago. But the past is still the past. Even though the lumbering big man has shown flashes of his former brilliance, Ibaka simply isn’t what the Raptors are sorely lacking: a consistent presence in the paint.

Ibaka was first brought in to be a defensive stalwart who battles for rebounds and guards the star centres and power forwards of the league. Even if late game isolation defensive switches occurred, he supposedly had the foot speed to keep pace with modern guards as well. Simply alleviating the defensive responsibility from Raptors stars Jonas Valanciunas and Demar DeRozan was enough for Ibaka to be effective. But during his tenure with the Raptors, has he really done that?

The problem with isolating Ibaka’s performance is that the Raptors are one of the best teams on both sides of the ball. They are one of four teams that are top 10 in both offensive and defensive ratings, along with the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, and Boston Celtics. Essentially, given 100 possessions, they would score, on average, 114.1 points and concede 106.5. In comparison, the Utah Jazz, widely thought to be one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, have a defensive rating of 104.1, a mere 2.4 points less than Toronto. Since the Raptors themselves are stacked with such potency on both ends of the court, their performance most likely inflates Ibaka’s stats.

Take this into consideration: the best two-Raptor combos on the team both contain Ibaka. Both DeRozan and Lowry, when put on the floor with Ibaka, seem to perform exceptionally well, playing to a net rating of +3.5. However, the combo of DeRozan and Lowry play just as well, and the only difference is between the three pairings is a +1.7 offensive rating when DeRozan and Ibaka are playing together. This of course, doesn’t mean that Ibaka causes DeRozan to play better. The difference can also be attributed to statistical noise. In other words, it just so happens that they score more when they are playing together.

There is almost no stat line that specifically correlates Ibaka’s presence to Lowry and DeRozan’s additional offensive rating. Ibaka’s biggest calling card—his ability to take defensive responsibilities away from his star teammates—doesn’t show up. Rebounding percentage with Ibaka on the floor, for example, is actually lower than if Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas is playing. In all combinations, Valanciunas consistently maintains a 3% higher rebounding percentage as well as a +3 offensive rating. The only reason Valanciunas’ net rating with any of the Raptors is so low is due to his low defensive rating. But even then, it’s interesting to note that the two-man combo of Valanciunas and Ibaka has a defensive rating of 111.7, the lowest of any starting pair on the Raptors. If Ibaka was playing solid defense, it is certainly not on an individual level.

A cursory review of his stats reveals a slow decline, but not enough to warrant any kind of panic. Sure, his 5.7 rebounds per game is slightly lower than his previous average of 6.8, and he has shot slightly worse from the three-point line, but the difference isn’t very staggering. Without putting the situation in context, it’s easy to assume that his lowered stats are simply byproducts of the Raptors’ new flow offense. Since he’s getting more open looks, and more shots in general, the slight slip in three-point percentage can be justified by the volume of shots he has taken. The lowered rebounds and blocks can be explained by Ibaka having to switch out on perimeter players; if Ibaka is forced away from the net, it seems obvious that he couldn’t rebound as effectively. The Raptors’ defense, in general, has declined compared to last year. From when Ibaka was acquired to the playoffs, the Raptors’ conceded an average of 81.9 attempted field goals, and limited opponents to 43.7% shooting. This year, they have conceded an increased average of 83.9 attempted field goals, and have only limited teams to 45.1% shooting. If opponents shoot more accurately, on more shots, then rebounding numbers will most likely fall.

Still, on an individual level, Serge Ibaka has been pretty disappointing.

Real Plus-Minus (RPM) is a stat that gives an approximate value to how much defensive and offensive value a specific player adds to a team when he is on the court, instead of merely looking at points scored versus points conceded. At the very least, you would expect Ibaka to be elite in terms of defensive real plus-minus, and middle of the pack in terms of offensive real plus-minus, which converges to an above average player. However, that is not the case.

Ibaka ranks 40th among power forwards in RPM in the league with -0.35, lower than the Atlanta Hawks’ Tyler Cavanaugh, a player who wasn’t playing on a professional contract prior to November. He has a defensive RPM of +0.04, which is nowhere close to being defensively elite. Draymond Green, the Defensive Player of the Year Award, and a player playing in a comparable role has a staggering DRPM of +3.34. Ibaka, on the other hand, is closer to Carmelo Anthony (+0.6), Kristaps Porzingis (+0.4), Kevin Love (+0.2), Ryan Anderson (-0.26), and Blake Griffin (-0.74), all of whom are known for mind-blowingly bad defensive skillsets. Even 39-year-old Dirk Nowitzki, whose ankles can barely hold him up, has a DRPM of +0.58. That’s how bad Ibaka is. Sure, Valanciunas has an equally bad rating, but that’s simply due to his underutilization. When Ibaka wasn’t on the Raptors last year, and Valanciunas was getting more touches, the centre maintained a positive offensive (+0.76) and defensive (+0.23) RPM.

It’s not like Ibaka has been lights-out on the offensive end either. He has an offensive RPM of -0.39. In other words, he’s literally holding DeRozan and Lowry back on offense. Sure, Ibaka isn’t the worst offensive power forward in the league. In fact, 49 of the 93 eligible power forwards are contributing negatively to the offense. But the difference is, they make up for it by being the anchor on the defensive end. Toronto doesn’t need another offensive weapon: DeRozan and Lowry contribute a combined +6.58 offensive RPM, but also are liabilities on the defensive end, with a combined DRPM of -1.28. Ibaka is exactly what the Raptors don’t want: mediocre offense, combined with terrible defense. Even rookie OG Anunoby, who consistently has to guard the opponent’s top players (a la James Harden), still puts up a higher DRPM (+0.73) than Ibaka.

To the naked eye, Ibaka simply doesn’t fit into this iteration of the Raptors. Sure, he’ll hit some of his three-pointers, but once he goes cold, he doesn’t have many backup offensive options to turn towards. Since he is, by definition, a stretch-four, standing at the three-point line doesn’t help the Raptors get second-chance points at all, hence the lack of offensive rebounds. The Raptors rank 21st in offensive rebounds and 22nd in 2nd chance points. On defense, when Ibaka is switched on to smaller guard, he either doesn’t seem to have the foot speed to guard a driving player, or simply (and frustratingly) fouls. His presence on the board is also never found, as Toronto ranks 24th in 2nd chance points conceded.

The Raptors, being one of the most efficient offenses, often attempt several three-pointers in a game. As Toronto does not have the sharp-shooters that Golden State has, most of these threes end up as a rebound opportunity. This, theoretically, should give Toronto plenty of chances to find 2nd scoring opportunities. For a team that is relying on a relatively unreliable supporting cast of shooters, maintaining control of offensive chances is crucial, especially if CJ Miles or OG Anunoby freeze up down the stretch. On the other hand, taking advantage of opposing missed shots is pivotal in the transition offense that the Raptors run. Think about it: inbounding the ball requires time, and gives the opposition time to set up. Rebounding and running, on the other hand, create transition scoring opportunities that wouldn’t be there otherwise. They need defense. They need rebounding. They don’t need offense. And Ibaka gives Toronto what they never needed.

Either way, shots are still falling and Toronto is still winning. But at some point, the Raptors will remember that the playoffs are never as kind as the regular season. What happens when shots start missing? Or when Kyrie calls isolation on Ibaka? Will the Raptors live with Ibaka’s lacklustre rebounding and defense? Or will they finally address the fundamental need in their new offense? If they do change, maybe, just maybe, we’ll finally beat the Cleveland Cavaliers.

 

Note: All stats were updated following games on 7 December 2017