Chances are you’ve heard that the 2020 NBA free agency pool is one of the weakest in recent memory. This is no misnomer. The lone superstar of this year’s class, Anthony Davis, is almost certainly going to re-up with the Los Angeles Lakers, a team constructed to contend for the foreseeable future. Sorry to burst your bubble (pun intended), but the landscape of the league as we know it will not be seismically altered via free agency. With that being said though, there are still a ton of impact players for squads to choose from. Chief among the best bang-for-your-buck options to hit the market is Toronto Raptors center, Serge Ibaka.
First class three-point threat
Ibaka hasn’t always been the precise marksmen from deep he is now. During his first five seasons in the pros, he never attempted more than 0.7 threes per game. Ibaka was more of a midrange shooter back then, before modern offenses predicated on pace and space like the D’Antoni Rockets existed. Fast forward to the 2019-20 campaign, and Serge hoisted 3.3 threes nightly and drained 38.5 percent of them. Talk about development. Ibaka has evolved into truly one of the deadliest long range gunners for his size in the NBA, particularly in the non-corners where he converted his looks at a 41 percent clip (87th percentile according to Cleaning the Glass).
Ibaka has become superbly effective in pick and pop actions thanks to his (somewhat) newfound long range shooting prowess. Serge’s skill set has opposing bigs facing a conundrum when he sets or fakes a pick and ventures out to the three-point line. Either the opposition contests the shot and leaves the painted area unaccounted for, or they allow Ibaka room to fire and pray that he misfires. He creates a lose-lose situation for the defense.
The film above gives some insight on how Serge was able to give Daniel Theis and the Celtics headaches all series long in a second round match-up for the ages. None of Boston’s behemoths possessed the foot speed to pester Ibaka behind the arc. As such, Serge was able to generate open treys for himself on a nightly basis throughout the seven-game long slugfest between Eastern Conference heavyweights.
Ibaka isn’t much of a shot creator. But to quote Shannon Sharpe, that ain’t no problem, because Serge is a wonderfully efficient catch-and-shoot weapon. You can never have enough floor spacers in the modern NBA, especially if they happen to cash in on their opportunities with the frequency that Ibaka did; any and every contender would benefit from employing a seven footer with the perimeter expertise of a guard, it’ll just come down to Ibaka’s asking price (a topic we’ll get to later in this article).
Paint protector capable of switching onto smaller and/or quicker opponents
Yesteryear, Ibaka’s shot blocking prowess struck fear in the hearts of those unlucky enough to meet him at the rim. He led the league in rejections per game for two consecutive seasons as a 22 and 23 year old with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Notably, he swatted away an average of 3.7 shots during the 2011-12 campaign, the second most of any player since 2010 (Hassan Whiteside 2015-16). At 31 years old though, it’s abundantly clear that Ibaka’s lost a step in terms of his athleticism; his former pogo-stick like leaping ability has faded with age. That doesn’t mean Ibaka’s no longer an interior deterrent though, rather he just had to rely on his instincts and timing to send shots back instead of his leaping ability.
Here he meets Celtics stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum at their apex and rebuffs their shot attempts inside. Both youngsters are among the elite dribble penetration scorers in the game, but Serge was up to the task, as he has always been adept at rotating to the rim at just the right time. Ibaka’s rim protection was as problematic to the Celtics’ success as his three-point shooting, which says a lot about the job he did defending the goal.
Serge also demonstrated during his excellent postseason stint that he can still hang with expeditious guards and wings on the perimeter. Ibaka backpedals with the offensive player and keeps his hands high, and he collected many of his playoff blocks in this manner. It seemed as if many Celtics players attacked Ibaka off the dribble as if they had created a mismatch, but they were sorely mistaken.
Ibaka’s defensive prowess has proven to impact winning when the lights are at their brightest. It is crucial to keep the opposition out of the painted area in order to win in the playoffs, and Serge did just that when he saw the floor.
Verdict (how much is he worth?)
There are just six teams with cap space this offseason, and only one team (Miami Heat) is considered a lock to make the postseason in 2020-21, and they already have an elite center in Bam Adebayo. As such, it is difficult to imagine that anyone with money to spare is going to throw a sizable offer the 31 year old’s way. Unfortunately, it appears as if he’ll have to settle for a mid-level exception offer from a contender if he is not re-signed by Toronto. I certainly believe that he is worth more, but with how the free agent market is currently, it’s going to be exceedingly challenging for Serge to receive a big payday. Ibaka should consider signing in Boston for their exception. He’d be an ideal fit at the starting center spot for Boston thanks to his ability to wreak havoc defensively and light up enemy bigs from behind the arc.