The Toronto Raptors got a first-hand glimpse at one of the NBA’s newest and widespread trends this past week in Tokyo:
The power couple.
In a pair of exhibitions against the Houston Rockets, the Raptors were the first NBA team to see how the pairing of two former MVPs – James Harden and Russell Westbrook – looked on wood.
Partnerships of Hall of Fame talents is the rage among the NBA elite: LeBron James and Anthony Davis in Los Angeles; Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn – as Raptors fans are all too aware – Paul George and Kawhi Leonard with the Los Angeles Clippers – and maybe Joel Embiid and Al Horford/Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, depending on how broadly you want to define these things.
But the Raptors are one of a number of teams that fancy themselves as contenders while trying to do it by committee, substituting overall depth of quality for a single superstar, let alone a duo.
And while the likes of OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet have been bold enough to predict a repeat, it’s safe to say that there is little chance of any of that happening without an unexpected lift from some corner of their roster.
Typically that suggests a younger player will find an additional gear – Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby let’s say – but often overlooked is the possibility of continued improvement among their veterans. The best players add elements or wrinkles throughout their careers in order to maintain their place in an ever-evolving league.
Based on early returns, there’s an argument Serge Ibaka may be on the cusp of a strong follow-up after a season where he averaged career highs in points and assists per 100 possessions. He shot 58.3 per cent from two-point range — his best mark since he was 22 years old — and his go-to move was dunking in transition. The rugged power forward has evolved into a more offensively efficient player.
Still, the most important elements of Ibaka’s growth might not show up in the box score.
“I think I’m a lot better, I’m a lot better basketball player,” Ibaka says. “Not only skill-wise but understanding the game, playing as a team, helping a team, helping your teammates to get better, and then doing all the little things to help your team without scoring.
“Of course, you have to score, but just understanding the game, positioning myself where it can not only be good and for my teammate. And also being a great teammate, too. Since I’ve been here, since my first year and now, I’ve been getting better and better to be a good teammate on and off the court.”
On the court, chances are Ibaka isn’t going to match the career-high 3.7 blocks he averaged in his third season in Oklahoma City or maybe not the 124 threes he made in 2016-17 on 39.1 per cent shooting from deep. Although those to attributes – the ability to protect the rim and stretch defences on the other end – remain a big part of his NBA identity.
Instead look for the ease with which he connects with Kyle Lowry or VanVleet in various pick-and-roll actions or the range of his options he now has to create his own shot. Even more significantly, the ease with which he joins the rapid-fire ball-movement sequences that either earn him an assist or see him seamlessly be part in a chain of actions leading to an open shot a few passes down the line.
“If you look at Serge in his time with us he’s fundamentally changed his game in two ways,” says Raptors 905 head coach Jama Mahlalela, who worked with Ibaka extensively when he was a Raptors assistant after Toronto acquired Ibaka at the 2017 trade deadline. Current Raptors assistant Eric Khoury has put in the heavy listing the past two seasons. “One, he’s more young in the way he actually plays the game, which seems counter-intuitive … but he plays with more energy and then his skill set has totally changed.
“His ability to take the ball and dribble hand off, change directions, make a pass,” says Mahlalela. “Our first day in [in training camp] he had five kick-out for threes. That never happened before, ever.”
Ibaka has been lights out every time he’s hit the floor so far in the pre-season. He was arguably the best player on the floor in the Raptors’ open scrimmage in Quebec City, but his peak moment might have been his inside-out dribble to beat his man from the three-point line to gain the paint and his kickout to an open shooter once the defence collapsed. In two games in Tokyo he shot 13-for-19 from the floor in 40 minutes of action and looked more comfortable keeping the offence flowing, easily keeping actions moving in Raptors coach Nick Nurse’s read-and-react offence.
And when things got sticky? There was Ibaka to bail his teammates out with his multi-fake fadeaway jumper worthy of Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon.
Ibaka has always shown the ability to grow his game – adding three-point shooting as an example. But in recent years he’s added subtleties that perhaps some might have thought out of reach for a veteran approaching 30 years old having built a successful career on well-established attributes.
Since arriving in Toronto, Ibaka’s post-practice individual work has featured him working on Eurosteps and precise ball-handling drills designed to free him up with the ball in his hands. He trains like a guard. The results began to show last season and there is reason to believe there’s more to come.
“One of Serge’s biggest strengths is his pattern behaviour. He’s a creature of habit and does the same thing, over and over and that’s part the reason he’s been successful,” says Mahlalela.
“But what we’ve been able to do is shift some of his patterns. If you do the exact same thing, you get the exact same results. But if we change your patterns? At first he was completely uncomfortable with it and hated and didn’t want to do it but now has realized this is how the game is played and how he can keep playing.
“Now he enjoys it. Now he loves catch it, change direction, go this direction. Whereas before he was catch and shoot and that was about it. He wasn’t robotic, that’s the wrong word, but he was structured.”
He’s been more flexible off the floor, too. His willingness to accept coming off the bench once Marc Gasol became the regular starter, for example.
Add in his seemingly closer connection with his teammates – his “How Hungry Are You” YouTube series as one example – and it doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest that Ibaka’s continued growth in Year 11 may be a cause for optimism in Toronto’s post-Kawhi Leonard title defence as they try to navigate in and round the NBA’s superstar duos with a team approach.
“Last year was tough [coming off the bench],” he said. “I’m not sure it could be tough for anybody. This year, I don’t really know, I don’t really care, what direction, what you want me to do. I’m just ready. I’m just ready, my mind is ready, I’m just ready. Whatever it takes to do to help the team to get wins, I’m going to do it.”