The Toronto Raptors should move on from Serge Ibaka

Serge Ibaka

Mar 3, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka (9) reacts after being called for a foul against the Washington Wizards in the fourth quarter at Verizon Center. The Raptors won 114-106. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Serge Ibaka will be asking for a hefty pay raise this offseason. But is he really worth the price for the Toronto Raptors?

On Sunday afternoon, the Cleveland Cavaliers swept the Toronto Raptors in the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals. Later that night, Zach Lowe of ESPN penned the Raptors’ eulogy.

The gist of Lowe’s article: Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri has a lot of decisions to make this summer. Issue No. 1 is Kyle Lowry‘s impending free agency. Issue No. 2 is the future of Serge Ibaka, the big man for whom Ujiri traded in February.

Ibaka is an unrestricted free agent who will likely demand a long-term deal paying about $20 million annually, per Lowe.

If a team is going to sign a player, its front office needs to ask two main questions: First, does this player improve our team? Second, is the hypothetical improvement worth the very non-hypothetical money?

Let’s start with the first question. At 27, Ibaka remains an intriguing talent. With both shot-blocking ability and an efficient three-point shot, he’s the sort of proto-unicorn from whom youngsters like Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Myles Turner have descended.

That rare combination of skills, combined with Ibaka’s 6’10” height, make him extremely adaptable. He can spot up around a 1-5 pick-and-roll or roll to the basket himself. He can guard Kevin Love at the elbow or box out Tristan Thompson to snare defensive rebounds.

And he can do those things pretty productively. In 23 regular season games with Toronto, Ibaka put up 14.2 points per game on an efficient enough 53.2 effective field goal percentage, to go along with 6.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks.

Apr 15, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka (9) goes to shoot against Milwaukee Bucks center Greg Monroe (15) in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. Milwaukee defeated Toronto 97-83. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

So yes, in theory, Serge Ibaka is a very good NBA player. But on the actual basketball court, there’s little evidence to suggest Ibaka made Toronto any better.

In fact, during the regular season, the Raptors were marginally better without Ibaka. When the Congolese big man played next to Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors got outscored by 1.8 points per 100 possessions. Put reserve forward Patrick Patterson in that spot, and the Raptors outscore opponents by 13.7 points per 100 possessions.

Some of that is noise. Unlike Patterson, Ibaka played very few minutes with Kyle Lowry due to the star point guard’s midseason wrist injury. Over more minutes, Ibaka’s numbers would likely improve. That said, this trend isn’t exactly new. Ibaka’s box plus-minus has declined each of the last five seasons, and you could make a coherent statistical argument that he didn’t improve Toronto at all.

If you made that argument, the eye-test would back you up. Ibaka remains a black hole on offense. In the Cleveland series, he proved incapable of making plays when the Cavs forced the ball away from DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. When he got chances to post up, the Cavs could feel comfortable giving Ibaka turnaround jumpers.

Ibaka is a strong spot-up shooter – no doubt – but Patterson shoots the ball just as well. Even rookie forward Pascal Siakam flashed a decent midrange jumper throughout the season. The dude isn’t Dirk Nowitzki; his jumper alone won’t make an offense tick.

Defensively, Ibaka is a poor fit next to Valanciunas. The Lithuanian is too slow to track stretch forwards around the perimeter, meaning Ibaka has to take on the task. The further Ibaka goes from the basket, the less valuable he becomes as a rim protector. You’d probably rather have Patterson switching screens and closing out to shooters.

Ibaka can, and probably should, play center. That switch puts the Raptors in a tough spot, however, as they’d be paying Valanciunas $15 million to sit on the bench. Do that, and Toronto will effectively give up on the potential of young centers Lucas Nogueira and Jakob Poeltl.

I don’t believe Ibaka makes the Toronto Raptors significantly better, or that losing him makes them significantly worse. But for the sake of argument, let’s just say that Ibaka really does improve the team. Does he improve it enough to warrant the cost?

In total, Ibaka played barely 1,000 minutes in a Raptors jersey; the sample size is admittedly small. Perhaps, as head coach Dwane Casey suggested, more time would’ve helped the team “jell.” Perhaps. But it’s not worth paying $80 million over the next four seasons to find out.

Re-signing both Ibaka and Lowry will leave Raptors ownership with a hefty luxury tax bill, and as Lowe writes, “You don’t pay that for a noncontender.” After last round’s sweep at the hands of the Cavs, we can definitively say that Toronto is not (yet) a contender.

Ibaka’s contract – even at a reasonable enough $20 million per year – would handicap the Raptors for the foreseeable future. As Lowe notes, a long-term deal reduces Toronto’s cap flexibility in future free agency windows, without giving the franchise championship upside right now.

By contrast, locking up Patterson for half the price and half the years would allow Toronto to retain future flexibility without becoming markedly worse on the court. Lowe’s suggestion against re-upping Ibaka, and for retaining Patterson or P.J. Tucker, is correct.

Serge Ibaka is a good player. He’ll make a valuable acquisition for someone. Just not the Raptors. Does he make Toronto much better? Probably not. Even if he does, is he worth the contract and the tax bill? No.

Come midnight on July 1, Masai Ujiri should move on.

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