Relying on Serge Ibaka

If you look at the stature and the salaries of everyone on the Toronto Raptors, it’s clear that Serge Ibaka was meant to be in the Big Three.

Here was the power forward solution that the franchise had coveted and lacked for the longest time. Ibaka is a credible shot blocker who also shoots threes, and he’s fine with taking a backseat to ball-dominant stars. He doesn’t need to be the main focus of the team, but he should be that third piece that steps up when called upon.

Except, that’s not exactly how Ibaka turned out, at least not yet. He’s not as impactful at the rim as he once was. He’s not some knockdown perimeter shooter that opens driving lanes. He’s not someone that steps up to fill a leadership role when others are lacking.

Ibaka is just another good-to-average player on a team full of good-to-average players. He’s no more the third option on offense as Jonas Valanciunas, C.J. Miles or Fred VanVleet, just like he’s no more of the defensive anchor as Jakob Poeltl or Pascal Siakam. And that willingness to take a backseat to DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry reeks of abject laziness more than anything else, especially since he’s all too happy to abdicate responsibility altogether by getting himself ejected, suspended or just straight up being a no-show.

He’s just one of many that could step up on any given night, but the expectation of Ibaka doing so on a nightly basis, or even when the situation demands, has turned out to be untrue, especially since his understudies have grown up so quickly and since his ancient legs have aged so quickly.

Ibaka has spent this season as a luxury. He is not so much the foundation of the house so much as he is the otherwise superfluous jaccuzi in the master bathroom that seals the deal on a prospective buyer.

(As a matter of fact, Serge just sent a thirst trap snap out of that jaccuzi.)

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And yet, according to the intended construction of this team, Ibaka is vital to the Raptors reaching their perceived ceiling.

Ibaka is the only player out of the rest that isn’t a halfway measure, and that’s why he earned a generous three-year, $65-million contract despite narrow financial restraints last summer.

You don’t pay that much for a luxury, you pay that much because you need him, and president Masai Ujiri felt very much like he needed Ibaka.

That need hasn’t presented itself just yet thanks to the bench being found money, but Ibaka’s cheque will soon be cashed. The playoffs are just around the corner, and that’s when he will be called upon. The hope will be that a veteran like Ibaka will have saved himself to give more when it matters most.

He can no longer afford to take games off; Ibaka will be counted upon for consistency and to fill in for the absences of others. And there will be no more excuses; there will be plenty of rest for his creaky knees. He’s going to have to justify his payday by putting in the performances that his lesser compensated backups cannot.

As great as Valanciunas can be on offense, he doesn’t defend like Ibaka. The consistent rebounding and second-chance points are fantastic, but Ibaka’s surperior positioning and awareness in the paint, coupled with his outside shot, opens more flexibility in terms of defensive schemes and lineup arrangements.

As great as Poeltl and Siakam are on defense, they don’t score like Ibaka. Their sky-high IQ and endless motor allows them to be opportunistic, but Ibaka can reliably get his points in a halfcourt game easier than Poeltl and Siakam could. There is no Siakam or Poeltl’s equivalent of a pick-and-pop jumper with Ibaka that can be counted upon as the basis of a premeditiated bucket.

On a more granular level, Ibaka will be asked to neutralize some difficult match-ups along the way. His shot-blocking ability will be dire if they face the drive-and-kick offenses of Washington, Milwaukee and Indiana. His floor-stretching ability will be vital in creating space inside against the gritty interior defenses of Miami and Philadelphia.

And more specifically, Ibaka will be asked to shut down the likes of Kevin Love, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and perhaps even LeBron James. Given what he has shown in the regular season, those assignments would seem impossible.

Short of that, the Raptors would settle on what they saw from Ibaka in the Bucks series, where he was arguably their most reliable player.

It was Ibaka who kept his cool in their familiar meltdown in Game 1. Ibaka scored 19 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and record three blocks, but his impressive showing was overshadowed since Lowry was outplayed by Matthew Dellavedova.

It was also Ibaka that stepped his game up in a pivotal Game 5 victory that gave them enough confidence and momentum to survive an unforgettably unconvincing close out in Game 6. Ibaka had 19 points, six rebounds, three assists and three blocks while shooting 8–10 from the field in a 27-point win.

The distinction should be made that Ibaka was hardly dominant throughout the series. Ibaka’s post defense against Greg Monroe was hard to watch, and it was the suddenly deadeye shooting of Norman Powell (he shot 12–12 from deep after being inserted into the starting lineup; the general theme of this column also applies to Powell) that truly made the difference. It was just that Ibaka stepped up during important moments.

That’s the luxury of being a third star — you don’t need to bring it every single game. But when you’re needed, you have to be there, and given what has transpired this season, Ibaka has just not been reliable.