Any team in need of a centre this offseason will be in the market for Serge Ibaka.
An unrestricted free agent, Ibaka averaged a career-best 15.4 points per game this season. He did so efficiently, shooting 51.2 percent from the field, 38.5 percent from 3-point range and 71.8 percent from the free-throw line, impressive splits for a player his size.
Additionally, Ibaka led the Raptors with 8.2 rebounds per game to go along with 1.4 assists, 0.8 blocks and 0.5 steals.
Of centres available this offseason, I had only Montrezl Harrell and Andre Drummond, the latter of whom might not even become available if he picks up his player option for next season, ahead of Ibaka. Even in his early 30s, Ibaka proved this season that he still has a lot to offer. Money around the league will be tight, but it wouldn't be a surprise if a number of teams show interest in him whenever free agency begins.
With that in mind, let's take a closer look at what exactly Ibaka brings to the table, both the good and the bad.
MORE: Evaluating Fred VanVleet ahead of free agency
According to NBA.com, Ibaka generated the bulk of his offence in pick-and-rolls, on spot-ups and cuts this season. He is also a threat to score on putbacks and can get out in the open court.
Ibaka used to create a lot of his own offence in the post, but he rarely looks to score with his back to the basket anymore, with only 6.7 percent of his scoring this season coming in the post.
Whereas Ibaka ranked in the bottom half of the league in scoring efficiency out of the pick-and-roll, on spot-ups and cuts, he ranked in the top half in putbacks, transition and post-ups.
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A legitimate stretch five
Ibaka is coming off of one of the best 3-point shooting seasons of his NBA career.
Not only did he average 3.3 3-point attempts per game in the 2019-20 season, the third-highest mark of his career, Ibaka converted 38.5 percent of those opportunities, the second-most accurate mark of his career. According to Stathead, there were only 11 big men who finished the season with more made 3s than Ibaka, a list that includes the likes of Kristaps Porzingis, Brook Lopez, Nikola Jokic and Al Horford.
All but one of Ibaka's 3-point attempts this season were catch-and-shoot, per NBA.com. That does limit his versatility some, but Ibaka is more than a standstill shooter. He'll walk into 3s at the top of the perimeter as the trailer in transition and he's a threat to pop to the 3-point line in pick-and-rolls.
The combination helped Ibaka develop great chemistry with Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, both of whom were among the league's leading drivers this season.
Ibaka has been a solid 3-point shooter for much of his career. He made only 29.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts in 2018-19 but combined to shoot 36.9 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s between 2013-14 and 2017-18. Based on those numbers, it would seem as though 2018-19 was the anomaly, not 2019-20.
Still, Ibaka is better suited to play centre than power forward in today's NBA in part because of his limitations as a 3-point shooter. He's an efficient 3-point shooter, but he doesn't shoot them in the same volume as players like Davis Bertans, Danilo Gallinari, Robert Covington or Jae Crowder. Playing him at power forward next to a non-shooting centre could lead to some spacing issues.
A versatile scorer but limited playmaker
Ibaka is a threat to score at all three levels out of the pick-and-roll.
In addition to being one of the better 3-point shooters at the centre position, Ibaka converted 42.9 percent of his field-goal attempts from midrange this season, doing so on decent volume.
He's at his best when he's popping to the elbow and free throw line, and he has the size at 7-feet to shoot over defenders when they close out on him.
Ibaka is also an efficient finisher around the basket.
According to NBA.com, Ibaka shot 46.6 percent in the non-restricted area part of the paint this season, as well as 73.4 percent in the restricted area. He's not the above the rim finisher that he used to be - 9.0 percent of Ibaka's field goal attempts were dunks this season, down from 18.2 percent at his peak - but he can still power his way to the basket on occasions and has a soft touch from floater range.
In making 219 shots in the paint this season, Ibaka trailed only Pascal Siakam (321) for most on the Raptors. He can finish in a variety of ways, from dunks and layups when he gets the ball underneath the basket...
...to floaters and hook shots when he gets the ball on the short roll.
Part of the reason Ibaka ranks in the bottom half of efficiency in scoring out of the pick-and-roll and on cuts despite the fact that he's an effective three-level scorer is twofold:
- He doesn't draw many fouls. According to NBA.com, Ibaka drew a shooting foul on 5.5 percent of his rolls this season. Of the 50 players who averaged at least two possessions per game as the roll man, only eight drew shooting fouls at a lower rate. Similar deal on cuts: Ibaka drew a shooting foul on 10.7 percent of his cuts, the sixth-lowest rate among the 30 players who averaged at least two cut possessions per game.
- He's turnover prone. According to NBA.com, Ibaka committed a turnover on 12.2 percent of his rolls and 8.3 percent of his cuts this season, both of which put him near the top of those same groups of players. When watching his turnovers this season, it stood out how many times he got called for an offensive foul when setting screens.
That points to Ibaka's greatest weakness on offence, which is that he's not much of a playmaker for himself or others. Over three-quarters of his field goals, this season were assisted and he averaged more turnovers per game (2.0) than assists (1.4).
He's far more of a finisher on offence than an initiator, to the point where he's far more valuable on a good team than a bad team.
Ibaka has improved some as a passer in recent years, but it's still not a part of his game that comes naturally.
Once a rim protector, always a rim protector
It's fascinating how Ibaka has evolved throughout his career.
When he first came into the league, Ibaka was known as a defensive force. He's never won a Defensive Player of the Year award, but he led the league in blocks in back-to-back seasons early in his career and made three All-Defensive First Teams as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The days of Ibaka being a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and a shoo-in for an All-Defensive Team are long gone, but he's still capable of altering shots around the rim. While he averaged a career-low 0.8 blocks per game this season, Ibaka contested 6.6 shots per game around the basket, the most on the Raptors. Opponents made 51.5 percent of their shot attempts in those situations, putting Ibaka on the same page as the likes of Rudy Gobert, Myles Turner and Hassan Whiteside.
I wouldn't use that as evidence that Ibaka is still one of the best rim protectors in the league, but he is still a factor around the basket when locked in. He can step outside of the paint as well, although he's not built to be in a switch-heavy scheme. Based on data collected by Krishna Narsu of The BBall Index, Ibaka had a defensive versatility rating of 59.7 this season, which was only slightly higher than that of Marc Gasol (57.4).
Ibaka is much more effective when he's hanging around the paint, where he can use his defensive instincts and long arms to protect the rim.
On a per-minute basis, Ibaka was Toronto's best defensive rebounder this season, pulling in 8.2 defensive rebounds per 36 minutes. He's one of the better rebounders available in this year's free-agent class.
Ibaka has long had the reputation of being a defender, but he's much more of a scorer at this stage of his career. He provides important spacing at the centre position and he's a dynamic finisher out of the pick-and-roll. There are a lot of teams that could use his scoring ability.
What's going to be fascinating to see is what Ibaka prioritizes in free agency. Having recently turned 31, this could be his last chance to secure a big payday. The problem? There aren't many good teams with cap space this offseason, limiting his options if he's still looking to compete. The Raptors can offer him the best of both worlds - money and a chance to compete - although it's hard to imagine them offering Ibaka a multi-year contract with their eyes reportedly set on 2021.
Either way, Ibaka should be a popular target when free agency begins.
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