Serge Ibaka Must Regain His Defensive Form For Toronto Raptors

For Serge Ibaka to prove his worth for the Toronto Raptors, he’ll need to improve his defensive play.

It’s important to not put too much stock into how a player plays in a bad situation. For some role players, the opportunity to play with a winning organization can kick-start their drive and lead to them excelling.

This was the case last season when the Orlando Magic traded Channing Frye to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Frye blossomed after struggling in Orlando and helped the Cavs reach the NBA Finals. This year, the Toronto Raptors hope they will receive a revitalized Serge Ibaka for their title hopes.

We aren’t that far removed from Ibaka being a huge difference maker in the Western Conference Finals. His ability to switch onto perimeter players in the pick and roll helped stagnate the greatest regular-season team of all time.

But over the last couple years, the former Defensive Player of the Year candidate has allowed his play on that end to slip, gravitating more and more towards being an offensive player.

Back in 2011-12 season, Ibaka was a shot-blocking monster, averaging an astounding 4.8 blocks per 36 minutes. Since that point, his shot blocking prowess has been on the decline.

His per 36 block numbers fell to 3.5 per game the following year, to 3.0, 2.6, 2.1 and finally 1.9 this season.

While shot blocking isn’t the only measure of rim protection, the tracking data isn’t favorable to Ibaka either. Per,  Ibaka is allowing opponents to shoot 52.9 percent at the rim.

That would put him behind Patrick Patterson (46 percent), Lucas Nogueira (48.6 percent), and even Jonas Valanciunas (50.4 percent). This represents a sharp drop-off from the 43.6 percent he allowed last season.

For the Raptors, they’ll need to hope Ibaka learned from his time in Orlando. His desire to be an offensive focal point was a big part of why he was originally traded from Oklahoma City. On the surface, wanting more touches is understandable.

The issue was that his defensive impact would diminish when he wouldn’t get the ball. As Ibaka expressed to The Oklahoman last year:

“I’m gonna tell you the truth, it’s hard sometimes when you play hard, you play your (butt off),” Ibaka swore, before apologizing and rephrasing. “You play so hard on defense, then you come to offense and you’re going to be out there in the corner for 4, 5, 6, sometimes 8 minutes and you don’t touch the ball. We human, man. It’s hard.

On the surface, these complaints are perfectly reasonable. While you want players to fill their role, sometimes you do need to keep them involved to keep them happy.

But with Ibaka’s defensive play continuing to decline, despite being a focal point in Orlando, it should cause some concern for the Raptors.

It’s possible that Ibaka has learned that being a focal point isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This could cause him to once again embrace his role as a defensive stopper. At the very least the Raptors should be aware that he can be difficult and push to keep him involved.

Both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have received flack at times for failing to keep others involved. This complaint has been especially true for how the team uses Jonas Valanciunas.

Having a big man as a third option will be a deviation from the norm for a Raptors offense that has been perimeter orientated for the last several years. With free agency looming for Ibaka, keeping him involved and happy will be incredibly important.

Both for his morale, as well as making the process of retaining his services easy for both parties.

The union of the Raptors and Ibaka appears to be seamless. His offensive strengths and tendencies are remarkably similar to Patterson.

While he doesn’t have the same dribble-drive game as Patterson, Ibaka gives Toronto a pick and pop threat that can also generate good looks in the post.

Where Ibaka differs from Patterson is the need to draw plays up for him.

Over the last four years Ibaka has averaged between 12 to 15 points per game. He’s accustomed to being involved in the offense, while Patterson’s offensive involvement can fluctuate from game to game–setting screens, standing on the perimeter and getting the odd clean-up basket.

While they’ll both receive pick and pop looks, the Raptors will have to retool their offense to feature Ibaka.

The ripple effect of this change will be something to keep an eye on for Toronto. For Lowry and DeRozan, Ibaka should help alleviate some of the offensive burden they carry on a nightly basis.

While having another player in the pecking order over Valanciunas could negatively impact his ability to stay present mentally. As he is often seen sulking or checked out when he isn’t getting touches.

The incentive for the Raptors to make this move is obvious. Ibaka is not far removed from being a true difference maker on both ends of the floor. He’s also a player that is no stranger to deep playoff runs.

The key to him making a difference for the Raptors will come down to balancing the effort he puts into both ends of the floor. He must accept that he won’t always be receiving touches and not let that impact his defensive play.

While the Raptors must ensure that they don’t completely neglect him on offense. Whether both parties can do that will determine how serious of a threat Toronto can be in the playoffs.

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