Has Serge Ibaka been overlooked and under-appreciated?
It’s an interesting question as the NBA kicks off what could be a frenzied weekend of free agency Friday night at 6:00 p.m. ET.
There’s a strong case to be made that the answer is absolutely yes.
Much has been made of the Toronto Raptors' culture over the past few seasons as the team has progressively elevated itself from good to elite to championship status.
There have been plenty of hands on the oars.
Kyle Lowry has, for all the right reasons, been recognized as the locomotive that has pushed and pulled a franchise from irrelevance to the league’s centre stage.
Pascal Siakam fast-tracked his development from an unknown first-round pick to second-team all-NBA.
And Fred VanVleet has established himself as the perfect complement to everything the Raptors do on both ends of the floor, with the story of his rise from being undrafted to being a highly rated free agent becoming part of franchise lore.
In each of those examples, Raptors president Masai Ujiri has done right by the player — with Lowry and Siakam getting max or near-max deals and VanVleet on the verge of cashing in himself.
But Ibaka’s role over the past two seasons often gets short-changed.
No one on the Raptors roster — with the possible exception of Norm Powell — has sacrificed more and had to keep his ego in check more than Ibaka while simultaneously providing high-level production the team would be lost without.
During their championship season the multi-skilled big man was rolling as the starter on a team playing at a 58-win pace when the Raptors pulled the trigger on the deal that brought them Marc Gasol.
There was some lip service given to the notion that the starting roles would flip flop regularly based on matchups, but when play resumed after the all-star break, Ibaka’s days as a starter in Toronto were essentially over, even if his production never wavered.
This past season Ibaka’s contributions were even more significant as the Raptors set a franchise-record for winning percentage — playing at a 60-win pace through the pandemic-interrupted 72-game season.
On a per-36-minute basis he averaged 20.5 points, 11 rebounds and 1.9 assists — all career highs — while converting nearly five threes a game at 39 per cent.
Gasol’s presence was intermittent, limited to 44 regular-season games due to injury before the season was halted on March 11, and his performance was equally spotty.
Even for a player whose contributions aren’t necessarily correlated with the box score, Gasol’s offensive contributions were limited — a career-low 42.7 per cent from the floor and just 7.5 points a game, also a career-low — and were non-existent in the playoffs as he mustered only six points a game on 39.1-per cent shooting even while lightly guarded, if at all.
But Gasol remained head coach Nick Nurse’s unquestioned starter and Ibaka came in to pitch relief — no small sacrifice for an 11-year veteran in a contract year with a championship ring and 144 career playoff games on his resume.
Even while Ibaka was putting up 14.8 points a game on 57.3-per cent shooting in the playoffs, he came off the bench for 22.8 minutes a game compared with Gasol, who started and played 20.7 minutes through his struggles.
Those close to Ibaka allow that his role grated him at times, but he never let it become an issue.
“The value he provided didn’t correlate to his minutes, it’s fair to say,” was how one league source put it. “He has 11 years in the league, but his role was often changing.
“It could be frustrating, but he was always ready and always professional.”
Yet even as free agency has approached, much of the discussion about the Raptors plans have centred on VanVleet — “I think we’ve said it publicly, privately and every which way. He’s our top priority,” was Webster’s comment earlier this week — with scarcely a word about Ibaka (or Gasol, but after his performance fell off a cliff in the bubble, word is the club is comfortable with him looking around for a richer NBA deal than the modest one-year deal they are willing to make).
Now it’s time for the Raptors to show the kind of respect Ibaka has earned and should have received before now.
It will be fascinating to watch, and there’s a lot riding on it. Imagine the Raptors trying to compete for a title with a diminished Gasol and Chris Boucher (a restricted free agent) as their incumbent bigs?
Working in the Raptors' favour is that it’s a tight free-agent market in any case — in part due to the salary cap staying flat at $109 million in the wake of the pandemic — and it’s a buyers’ market for veteran size, depending on your preference, with Hassan Whiteside, Tristan Thompson, Robin Lopez and Aron Baynes, as well as Ibaka and Gasol all looking for deals.
But of those available, Ibaka — still only 31 — checks a lot of boxes as a stout defender, improving playmaker and reliable pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll option. His growing reputation as a positive veteran locker-room presence is another attribute.
There’s a reason his name has been attached to teams that plan to win a title in 2020-21 — the Brooklyn Nets, where he could team up with old pal Kevin Durant, or the Los Angeles Lakers, where he could spread the floor for LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Of the two, the Lakers might be more of a threat given they can offer the full mid-level, which starts at $9.26 million and can run four years with annual raises of five per cent, for a total of $39.8 million.
The Nets can only offer the taxpayers mid-level exception, which starts at $5.7 million and can run three years with five per cent raises for a total of $18 million.
Given Ibaka is coming off arguably his best season and an expiring three-year, $65-million deal, it seems inconceivable he’d accept what Brooklyn can offer.
No friendship runs that deep.
The betting is that the Raptors will try to sell Ibaka on a rich one-year deal that doesn’t complicate their salary cap picture going forward, recognizes what Ibaka can still bring and — with Gasol either out of the picture or in a lesser role — allows Ibaka to build his value and hit the market in the summer of 2021 when the cap will rise and more teams will have money to spend.
Would a one-year, $20- or $25-million deal be acceptable compared with something with a longer term but a lower annual value?
The Raptors better hope so, given what Ibaka has done for them and — perhaps more importantly — where they would be without him.