NBA, Toronto Raptors

Serge Ibaka is finally thriving at center

Thanks to a strong weekend, the Toronto Raptors have more wins than any team in the NBA. They are percentage points behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the best record in the league and are one of just four teams that currently sit inside the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per NBA.com. The Raps are currently sixth in both pace-adjusted scoring differential and Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System, which adjusts team performance for strength of schedule.

The team’s resume is further bolstered by an 11-8 record against teams that are .500 or better, the second-best mark in the East and the third-best in the league. Toronto also has 16 double-digit wins (second-most in the NBA) against just five double-digit losses (fourth-fewest), reinforcing the idea that this is an elite team playing at an extremely high level.

Even though Toronto has out-performed its point differential by two games so far this season, that is more than made up for by the fact that the team’s two best players (Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry) have sat out 17 of a possible 78 combined games they could have played, meaning the Raps have been without at least one of them more than 20 percent of the time this season. Thrown in Jonas Valanciunas’ still-ongoing absence (nine games and counting), Norman Powell’s early-season injury that kept him out for 20 games, and O.J. Anunoby’s possibly tragedy-induced slump (Anunoby’s father died earlier this season), and it becomes even more impressive what Toronto has been able to do what it has so far this year.

Plenty of principals have received plaudits for the Raptors’ maintaining their winning ways after the offseason trade that shook up their team, with Kawhi Leonard looking like every bit the star he did before last season’s ridiculousness, Kyle Lowry shaving his usage and increasing his playmaking burden, Pascal Siakam blossoming into a future star before our very eyes, Danny Green seamlessly integrating himself with a new team and rediscovering his shooting stroke, and newly-installed coach Nick Nurse keeping everything humming at peak efficiency.

And while each of those players deserves the credit they’ve gotten, the collective attention paid to all of them has meant the contributions of Serge Ibaka have gone overlooked. Seemingly in danger of looking like a contractual albatross after a muted season a year ago, Ibaka, put simply, is having the best season of his career at age 29. Ibaka is doing just about everything better than he did last year, and he is doing almost everything better than he has in quite some time, and he’s doing several things better than he ever has before.

The driving force behind Ibaka’s resurgence is his near full-time move to center. Almost exclusively a power forward during his first nine NBA seasons, Ibaka has played just TWO PERCENT of his minutes alongside another so-called “traditional” big man, according to Basketball-Reference.

via Basketball-Reference

Ibaka actually began the season switching in and out of the starting lineup, splitting the starts with Jonas Valanciunas. Eventually, the Raptors settled on starting Ibaka alongside Siakam in the frontcourt almost all of the time, and they’ve been better for it. Sliding to the pivot has given Ibaka the athleticism advantage back against a lot of players, and he’s been operating in far more space than he had been over the previous few years.

Ibaka’s timing and chemistry with Lowry and Leonard when short-rolling to the nail on pick-and-rolls has been fantastic, and he has knocked down seemingly every elbow jumper he’s taken this season. Ibaka is shooting a completely absurd 63 percent on jumpers between 16 feet and the 3-point line, and those shots make up 15 percent of his total. After shooting just 40 percent on wide-open jumpers last season, per Second Spectrum data on NBA.com, Ibaka is connecting on nearly 53 percent of those shots this year.

He’s also shown a better knack for knowing when to take that shot and when to keep the line moving, whether with an immediate dribble hand-off, a ball-reversal, and or couple quick dribbles to move the defense around before throwing a pass. Ibaka’s 8.4 percent assist rate is nowhere near elite, but it is BY FAR the best mark of his career, blasting past the 5.2 percent figure he put up in 2013-14 and 2016-17. Incredibly, he’s now just nine assists away from having more dimes than he did a year ago, and only 31 away from setting a new career-high.

Some of that is Nurse’s system, which promotes a bit more movement than that of Dwayne Casey, but some of it is also Ibaka being afforded more space in which to make those decisions. Having Siakam hanging out behind the 3-point line (often several feet behind, as is his wont) rather than Valanciunas lurking under the rim just gives him more room. And when you’re not as crowded, you tend to make better decisions. Ask every NFL quarterback if they’d rather throw a pass under pressure or from a clean pocket. Certainly, rolling big men would also prefer to pass in open space rather than a crowded lane.

Playing as the lone big man has also moved Ibaka closer to the basket than he’d been in the previous few years, and that has affected his rebound rates (which are all the way up) and his shot distribution. Through the first five years of his career, 37 percent of Ibaka’s shot attempts originated within three feet of the rim. Over the next four seasons, as he stretched his range beyond the 3-point line, that figure plummeted to 17 percent. This year, it’s spiked back up to 25 percent, and he’s finishing those shots at the best rate of his career (78 percent).

Ibaka’s also taken for more of his shots from between three and 10 feet away while maintaining his strong conversion rate on those attempts. (One might think being defended by taller or bulkier players would negatively affect Ibaka’s ability to finish inside, but the fact that he has regained his speed and athleticism advantage on a near-every-possession basis has allowed him to get cleaner looks on those attempts than he’d been getting before.)

Shifting his shot distribution around in this fashion means that Ibaka’s average shot this season is coming three feet closer to the rim (12 feet vs. 15 feet) than it did a year ago. Perhaps it’s not surprising that he’s working on his best true shooting mark since the 2012-13 season, when Ibaka’s usage rate was more than five percentage points lower than it is now. And operating closer to the rim has helped Ibaka get back to rebounding his own team’s misses and drawing fouls at a more respectable rate for a big man, posting his best offensive rebound rate since 2013-14 and his best free-throw rate since (again) 2012-13.

All of this is connected to playing as the lone “true” big man more often than not, and those who have been suggesting for years that Ibaka should play center more often have to feel vindicated watching him excel at that slot after he’d spent years slowly drifting into irrelevance while masquerading as a stretch-4 — a role he seemingly groomed himself for in order to make the transition to the modern NBA. While that grooming made sense at the time because everybody wanted their fours to shoot, it became clear over the past several years that shooting was only one thing that stretch player needed to do. He also needed to be able to put the ball on the floor and make a play against a closing defense, and that’s not something at which Ibaka excels. Siakam does, though, and he’s made for a perfect fit in the role, while allowing Ibaka to slide naturally into a slot where his relative lack of stretch is just fine and his level of athleticism plays better than it did at the four.

And not playing next to another big hasn’t negatively affected Ibaka’s defense, either. It helps, of course, that he has arguably the best group of perimeter defenders in the league playing in front of him, but Ibaka also has protected the rim far better this season than in recent years. While he’s not blocking shots at the absurd rate he did early in his NBA career, Ibaka is doing an excellent job of challenging and altering them.

via NBA.com

After several years of posting below-average rim-protection numbers for a center, Ibaka has allowed opponents the fourth-lowest conversion rate among 90 players challenging at least three shots at the rim per game, per Second Spectrum. He may not be the optimal center solution against teams with monster-sized big men or teams that go hyper-small, but he certainly looks like the best option against everyone else, and “everyone else” includes most of the league.

Next: Why were we all wrong about the Sacramento Kings?

Ibaka’s blistering long mid-range shooting is unlikely to maintain itself, but his 3-point shooting should rebound to offset that expected drop. His defense seems unlikely to slip, and neither does that of the stalwart players in front of him. Something unexpected could happen that throws all of this out of whack, but then, I’m not sure anything would be more unexpected than Ibaka suddenly bouncing back with a career-season after what had gone on over the past few years.

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