Trading for Serge Ibaka two years ago would’ve been a great idea.
Trading for Serge Ibaka in July would’ve at least made sense.
But with what Toronto expects out of him now, trading for Serge Ibaka wasn’t a particularly good idea. They traded for a player that no longer exists.
The idea of trading for Serge Ibaka is that he’s the rare big man who can both shoot three-pointers and defend the rim at an elite level. Yes, he still does make three-pointers. Nobody’s scoffing at a power forward who makes nearly 39 percent. But Serge Ibaka’s defense is not remotely what it once was.
In 2011-12, Ibaka blocked 6.9 shots per 100 possessions. That’s better than peak Hakeem Olajuwon… and it’s not all that close. But those numbers have steadily declined every year since, to the point that he’s now down to 2.6 blocks per 100 possessions. That’s less than small forward Jerami Grant, and you’ve never heard of him.
It’s not just the blocks. Players can improve as defenders while their raw stats go down. Hassan Whiteside in Miami this year is a prime example. But virtually every metric pegs Ibaka as an average defender at this point in his career, and Toronto expects him to play like the Defensive Player of the Year candidate he once was.
The Magic were 2.2 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Ibaka sitting rather than playing. Opposing shooters make 1.3 percent more of their field goal attempts against Ibaka than average. That number falls to -1.9 percent on shots within six-feet of the basket… except Orlando plays such gigantic lineups it’d be hard to give him sole credit for that. Case in point: both Bismack Biyombo and Aaron Gordon impact opposing shooters more within six feet of the hoop. Two big players are more of a deterrent than one and three are more of a deterrent than two.
His defensive box plus-minus of 0.6 is a career low. He’s on pace to record his fewest defensive win shares in a season in which he’s played at least 70 games since his rookie year. And, he’ll likely end the year with his fewest blocks per 36 minutes of any season.
Ibaka is no longer the defense pterodactyl he once was. He’s not going to swoop in out of the sky and send five shots into the stands every night. He’s an average defender who shoots three-pointers, and Toronto already has that guy. His name is Patrick Patterson.
Does Ibaka open up a bit of lineup flexibility for the Raptors? Sure. He’s something of an answer to Cleveland’s Kevin Love-Channing Frye bomb squad of a frontcourt in that he can at least somewhat guard the perimeter. And, make either of them work defensively in ways the plodding Jonas Valančiūnas really doesn’t. The defense tends to die in DeMar DeRozan-led bench units, so Ibaka could at least somewhat remedy that situation.
But the cost here wasn’t nothing. Terrance Ross was a big part of the Kyle Lowry plus bench lineups that blitzed the league early in the season. That group has the second highest plus-minus of any lineup the Raptors have used this season. Replacing Ross’s high 30’s three-point shooting with Norm Powell’s spotty jumper is going to cramp the floor for Lowry.
And then there’s cost certainty. Ross has two more years left on a pre-cap explosion deal. Ibaka is going into free agency at the same time as Kyle Lowry, and we don’t even know how old he is. It might cost the Raptors more than $50 million to keep both next year alone. If both are in their 30’s and are signed on for five years, those deals get ugly very quickly.
Keeping Ibaka likely means getting rid of Patrick Patterson, and maybe a smaller piece like Cory Joseph too just to avoid the luxury tax. For the deal he gets next summer to be worth the actual cost (Ross and a first-round pick) and the functional cost (Patterson and maybe Joseph), the Raptors probably have to beat Cleveland. But until Wednesday night’s results, Toronto would’ve had to win a road playoff series just to get a shot at the champs.
Toronto’s plan was surely to acquire a power forward who could push them over the top against the Cavs. Paul Millsap might have been that guy, but the Hawks took him off the market. They settled for Ibaka, hoping he could have just as big of an impact. But all of the evidence suggests that he won’t.