Feb. 17, 2017
Is This NBA Player Any Good?: Serge Ibaka
by Fox Doucette
Masai Ujiri, supervillain extraordinaire, appears to have fleeced the Orlando Magic by trading Terrence Ross and the less favorable of first-round picks between the Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Clippers for Serge Ibaka, the current leader among active players (and fifth all-time) in block percentage. Toronto gets a formidable frontcourt presence who can also drain threes at an above-league-average clip, a solid defender (1.9 Defensive Win Shares, 0.6 Defensive Box Plus/Minus) who will shore up Toronto's below-average defense (109.0 DefRtg, 19th in the league), and who could be a key piece in not just stopping the bleeding as the Raps have plunged from second as low as fifth in the standings, but making a major push after the All-Star break into playoff contention.
So when we ask “is Serge Ibaka any good?”, that's the context we're framing this in:
Is Serge Ibaka enough of an upgrade that it was worth trading a bench piece and a first-rounder for him?
Stats, as always, via Basketball Reference, in particular the side-by-side comparison of Ibaka and Ross (http://www.basketball-reference.com/play-index/pcm_finder.cgi?request=1&sum=0&hint=Serge+Ibaka&player_id1_select=Serge+Ibaka&player_id1=ibakase01&y1=2017&hint=Terrence+Ross&player_id2_select=Terrence+Ross&y2=2017&player_id2=rosste01) that allows this to be done per 100 possessions rather than per game. Because it truly is apples to oranges otherwise.
The Blocks Just Ain't There No More
Ibaka led the league in block percentage in the lockout year with a mind-blowing 9.8 in that stat; his 6.3 career is tops among active players.
Trouble is, ever since his game started venturing out beyond the three-point arc, the range of his defense has followed suit. The 4.5 he put up last year was good for only tenth in the league after finishing no worse than third in any of the previous five years, and this year he hasn't cracked the top ten at all. His greatest skill has eroded, and there's no way Toronto's going to make a pure rim protector out of him; if that's what they wanted on their team, they wouldn't have let Bismack Biyombo walk.
Neither is the Defense
To watch an elite defender coast on reputation to where everyone still thinks he's an elite defender in outright contradiction of the numbers is practically a ritual among sportswriters across all sports, because defense isn't as easily quantified as making a basket or hitting a home run or scoring a touchdown. There's too much uncertainty in defensive numbers; your teammates could be trash, leaving you to have to over-help, you could be a pitcher dealing with poor fielding, or you could be coached by a defensive doofus who leaves you on an island against the other team's best player while the quarterback lights up the other ten guys you're on the football field with.
Still, when you look at someone's defensive ratings over six consecutive seasons and see 98, 101, 102, 104, 105, 108...well, that looks an awful lot like a trend. Ibaka's simply not the defender he once was.
The Elephant in the Room
Did we mention Ibaka makes $12.3 million and is on an expiring contract? Because he does, and he is. Will the Raptors be able to re-sign him? Or did they just trade Terrence Ross and a draft pick for a win-now rental who doesn't do his best NBA skills as well as he used to.
But Is He That Much Better Than Ross?
Here's what Terrence Ross is. He's a volume (53.4 percent of his overall shot attempts) three-point shooter who's not great from three (37.5 percent.) Ross is also a terrible defender (a minus-1.2 DBPM that almost completely offsets anything he does well on offense, unlike Ibaka, who is a decent offensive player who pulls his weight defensively even if he's not a grandmaster.
What's more, Ibaka slots into the lineup ideally. As a starting power forward, he is a huge upgrade from Pascal Siakam, and giving Norman Powell a chance to make a leap as a bench wing could make the difference come playoff time.
The question we asked at the top of the show here is was Ibaka worth the trade. Well, this was a classic move by a team that needed an upgrade and had a spare piece. Whether Ross fits in Orlando is irrelevant. The bottom line is that Ibaka provides a defensive upgrade to a team that has proven terrible on defense, an offensive force to replace a guy who was indisputably the fifth man in the offense, and stands as a dose of conference (and NBA) finals experience to a team that can always benefit from veteran leadership.
Still, that defensive decline is worrisome, and this still smacks of a short-term rental with a huge downside risk. Ibaka could be the piece that puts Toronto back into its spot as the second-best team in the East...or it could be rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
All things considered, though, this has far greater upside than down, especially this season. Let's call this one Plausible.