Serge Ibaka: 5 potential landing spots in free agency

Mar 27, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka (9) reacts after being called for a personal foul against the Orlando Magic at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Magic 131-112. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

With 2017 NBA free agency on the immediate horizon, Serge Ibaka has been mentioned in very few rumors. With that radio silence in mind, here are five teams who make sense as a landing spot for the big man.

Serge Ibaka has more or less stumbled through the last couple of years. Steven Adams overshadowed him in that thrilling 2016 Western Conference Finals, right before Oklahoma City traded him to Orlando. Then after a blah half-season in Florida, Ibaka was moved once again, this time to Toronto. He was fine with the Raptors, but did nothing to suggest he’s a long-term building block there. Now he’s a free agent.

Once touted as that rare pterodactyl rim protector with three-point range, Ibaka has stagnated. He can still shoot and block shots, but he’s not truly elite at either skill. Besides those cornerstone abilities, he can underwhelm. He’s a so-so rebounder, rarely draws fouls and almost never passes the ball.

For all his warts, however, Ibaka should still rake in $20 million or more annually. The Cameroon native can finish plays – on both ends – and that will always be valuable.

He’s a malleable player because he doesn’t need cover on defense or compromise a team’s spacing. That adaptability means his market as a free agent will be decent. For a center.

Indeed, Ibaka expressed interest in playing more center while in Orlando. Like most big men, he’s uncomfortable chasing ball-handlers around the perimeter, and if you stash him on a limited wing player, he’s too far away from the action – the rim, especially – to make much of an impact.

If he moves to center full-time, his long arms and defensive instincts would be put to better use. His offense might receive a boost, too. A lot of 4s can shoot the three nowadays, but few 5s possess that kind of range.

Teams planning to pursue Ibaka will know these things. They’ll also know he’s 27 and on the back end of his prime. A team who wants to tank won’t snag Ibaka, but a team that wants to win might. Here are five possible options.

Mar 10, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka (9) grabs a rebound against the Atlanta Hawks in the first quarter at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

5. Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks have zero reason to go after Serge Ibaka. Paul Millsap will likely leave Atlanta this summer, leaving the Hawks to rebuild around Dennis Schröder, restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr., and future draft picks.

Acquiring Ibaka, however, would be a very Hawks thing to do. Staying mediocre is in Atlanta’s DNA. That’s why the franchise reneged on trading Millsap last season – a decision that will likely haunt Hawks fans in the future.

Assuming Atlanta renounces every cap hold except those of Hardaway and rookie John Collins, they’ll have roughly $28 million annually to offer Ibaka. That’s more than most teams can fork out, meaning Atlanta could win a bidding war. If Ibaka is concerned about salary alone, and Atlanta is characteristically (and stupidly) interested, the price could be right.

From a team-building perspective, the appeal is limited. Ibaka wouldn’t get a Millsap-less Hawks team to more than 35 wins in all likelihood. The on-court appeal is a bit clearer, however. Schröder is a spread pick-and-roll point guard in need of a screener.

Ibaka and Millsap are both below-average roll men, but Ibaka is a better shooter who could be more lethal in the pick-and-pop.

That’s a poor reason to sign a player, and as a result, this option is extremely unlikely. Nevertheless, Atlanta has made these types of decisions before. Dwight Howard, anyone?

Apr 10, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson talks to his team during a timeout in the third quarter against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. The Celtics won 114-105. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

4. Brooklyn Nets

We’re over four years removed from the infamous Nets-Celtics trade, and Brooklyn still owes picks to its division rivals in New England. This is getting a bit absurd. But with no draft pick for which to tank in 2018, Brooklyn is somewhat free to try and win.

Sure, dealing Brook Lopez for D’Angelo Russell wasn’t exactly a win-now move, but Lopez only had a year left on his contract. He had to go. Brooklyn is flush with cap space, and if the team’s pursuit of Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson last offseason was any indication, they will try to sign players this summer too.

Ibaka doesn’t fit the Nets’ timeline at all. This team won’t be good for at least another five years. But $25 million per year would sound nice to Ibaka, and that’s what Brooklyn can theoretically offer.

On a two-year deal, this signing wouldn’t be horrible. Ibaka gets to cash in as the best player on a major market team, while Russell and Jeremy Lin get a solid running mate to replace Lopez.

Normally, a rebuilding team would opt against a veteran eating youngsters’ minutes. That’s not the case with Brooklyn, however. Aside from recent draft pick Jarrett Allen, who is only 19 years old, none of the Nets’ top prospects are bigs.

Russell, Caris LeVert, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson would all benefit from the spacing Ibaka provides. He’s a low-usage big who would happily sacrifice playmaking duties to young players who need to stretch their legs against NBA opposition.

Of course, this option assumes Ibaka doesn’t value winning, which is unlikely. Money talks though, and Nets general manager Sean Marks is aware of that simple fact.

Feb 24, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas (4) dribbles as he is watched closely by Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka (9) at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Celtics 107-97. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

3. Boston Celtics

Yesterday, Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reported that the Celtics are attempting to nab Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin in free agency, and then trade for Paul George. Ambitious? Yes. Possible? Very.

Serge Ibaka doesn’t push the Celtics over the top in the East – not a chance – which is why he’s not a target for Ainge right now.

That being said, if everything goes wrong in free agency, the Celtics don’t have to totally commit to the waiting game. By renouncing their rights to Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, and Kelly Olynyk, the Celtics can easily carve out $20 million-plus in cap space.

Ibaka is actually an excellent fit next to Al Horford. Brad Stevens runs tons of dribble hand-offs that require bigs who are comfortable with the ball. That doesn’t describe Ibaka, but it didn’t describe Johnson either. And Ibaka is a much better shooter than Johnson, which would give Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley the requisite space to fly off screens into the paint.

Defensively, Horford could chase power forwards and allow Ibaka to patrol the paint. The Celtics have struggled with rim protection for years, and Ibaka represents an immediate remedy to that problem. He wouldn’t address Boston’s rebounding woes, but there are few players on the market that would.

Boston won’t sacrifice its flexibility to accommodate Ibaka on a long-term deal. As a result, this move seems unlikely unless Ibaka is willing to take a one-year flier. Still, if both Ibaka and the Celtics can’t find anything better, they could have some mutual interest come Independence Day.

Dec 15, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone (left) talks with Denver Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic (15) during the first half at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 132-120. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

2. Denver Nuggets

Ignore everything I wrote about Ibaka being a center. The Nuggets have Nikola Jokic, a superstar-caliber center, hiding in plain sight, who can drag a team to a top-10 offensive rating by himself. Ibaka would not play center in the Mile High City.

This could work, though. Denver’s pursuit of Paul George let the world know: The franchise thinks it can win sooner rather than later. The Nuggets will target Paul Millsap and Blake Griffin in free agency, per Chris Haynes and Marc Stein of ESPN, and have at least explored adding Kevin Love in a three-team deal.

All five of those players fit more snugly than Ibaka, but that doesn’t make him a bad backup plan. The Nuggets finished 29th in the league last season in defensive efficiency, and even as a power forward, he would improve that number.

During the regular season, when opposing teams have little time to gameplan, twin tower lineups are more-than-tenable on defense. San Antonio and Utah just finished first and third in defensive efficiency, respectively. Even next to Jokic, Ibaka might be able to get away with playing center field and deterring foes at the rim, as he does here:

Offensively, the Nuggets are a whirling dervish of cutters and shooters, with Jokic playing quarterback. Ibaka doesn’t move particularly well without the ball, but you need spacing to maximize Jokic’s passing skills. Ibaka can space the floor and help give Denver the same five-out offense they ran last season, minus all the defensive woes.

By renouncing Danilo Gallinari alone, the Nuggets can carve out $25 million in cap space, and they’re looking to use it. If Denver wants to make a playoff run as Jokic continues to develop, there are worse options than Ibaka.

Apr 18, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) talks with forward Serge Ibaka (9) after beating Milwaukee Bucks 106-100 in game two of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

1. Toronto Raptors

Serge Ibaka will probably stay with the Toronto Raptors. I’ve already expressed concern with the Raptors offering a four-year deal to Ibaka and handcuffing themselves for the future, but no other team with cap space makes more sense.

If the Raptors can somehow attach a pick to Jonas Valanciunas and trade him, a spot will open up at center for Ibaka to take. He fits well there. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry need room to operate, and Ibaka’s shooting opens up the floor.

Defensively, the Raptors improved markedly after Ibaka’s arrival in February. It’s difficult to say how much of that improvement was due to Ibaka and how much was noise (or P.J. Tucker), but potential remains for next season. Ibaka posted a stingy 101.7 defensive rating without Valanciunas on the court, per

Good teams require rim protection, which Ibaka offers. Still, he offers it at a price. Toronto is capped out next season, but they have Ibaka’s Bird Rights and can theoretically offer the big man as much as he wants.

Add that deal to Lowry’s likely max or near-max contract, and the Raptors’ payroll will skyrocket straight into the luxury tax, barring multiple salary dumps. Again, I don’t believe Toronto’s ownership should agree to pay extra for a non-contender. My opinion doesn’t really matter, though.

For Raptors management and most Raptors fans, if Lowry re-signs, retaining Ibaka will be a no-brainer. If Lowry leaves – well – let’s just say Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri will have more pressing problems than Ibaka’s next contract.

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