20. SERGE IBAKA, TORONTO RAPTORS
The last few years have not been kind to Serge Ibaka, and 2017-18 looked a lot like rock bottom. The Congolese big man averaged an empty 12.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per contest last year, shooting 48.3 percent from the floor and 36.0 percent from three. Along with that, Ibaka posted an ugly -2.0 net rating to boot.
According to Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and Box Plus/Minus (BPM), it was either his second- or third-worst campaign since he reached the NBA, respectively, and just by watching him play, it isn’t hard to surmise why. Ibaka has clearly lost a step athletically, causing him to lack the insane rim protection he provided at his peak, and he hasn’t been able to improve his offensive game enough for his athletic decline not to matter.
At this point in his career, Ibaka might be better served taking over the backup center role for Toronto, especially after the departure of Jakob Poeltl, as he’s not enough of a difference-maker at the 4 when playing next to a traditional 5 like Jonas Valanciunas. Plus, like we said earlier, Siakam, who had a +4.0 net rating last year to Ibaka’s -2.0, might be ready to take over the Raptors’ starting power forward role.
19. THADDEUS YOUNG, INDIANA PACERS
The 10-year vet posted another solid season in 2017-18, averaging 11.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.7 steals per contest. The Indiana Pacers were an astounding 8.0 points per 100 possessions better with Thaddeus Young on the floor, most likely due to his underrated defensive acumen and his ability to craftily get buckets in the painted area. Young has a solid jumper that extends out to the mid-range, and still has the quickness and ball-handling dexterity to present a mismatch against most traditional big men.
Many expected Young to test free agency this summer, but he didn’t, instead choosing to opt into the final year of his deal, worth approximately $13.8 million. If he posts another campaign similar to his 2017-18, there’s a good chance he lands himself one last long-term deal next offseason, before his age becomes too much of a hindrance to his play.
18. JAMES JOHNSON, MIAMI HEAT
James Johnson’s spot in this ranking took a bump due to his regression last season. In his first year with the Miami Heat, Johnson was a true Swiss-Army knife, capable of defending multiple positions on the less glamorous side of the floor and doing a superb job on offense as a play-maker. It also helped that the 6-foot-9 big man shot a career-best 34.0 percent from three that season, making him a legitimately versatile threat when Miami had the ball.
However, Johnson took a step back in multiple facets in 2017-18. His three-point shooting fell to 30.8 percent, his defense wasn’t as impactful and overall, his production, on either end, didn’t resemble the player from the year prior.
Johnson did have surgery for a sports hernia this summer, which could explain his lack of explosiveness last season, particularly later on in the year. If he manages to regain his pre-injury form, Johnson will get back to looking like the prototypical modern frontcourt player, able to handle a variety of roles on offense and defense. But if he can’t, the Heat may be stuck with a bit of an albatross of a contract on their books.
17. JABARI PARKER, CHICAGO BULLS
Multiple ACL tears to the same knee stunted Jabari Parker’s development at a pivotal time. Prior to the latest, the Duke product appeared to have turned the corner, exemplified by, in 2016-17, him averaging 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per contest, on 49.0/36.5/74.3 shooting splits. In his return last season, though, Parker’s marks fell across the board; the 6-foot-8 forward put up 12.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists over 31 games in 2017-18, eventually seeing his role diminish even further once the playoffs rolled around.
Now a member of the Chicago Bulls, it’ll be interesting to see how Parker acclimates to his new surroundings. The fact he’ll be back in his hometown could give him a boost, but being forced to share the frontcourt with Lauri Markkanen may hurt his production.
16. TAJ GIBSON, MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
Most of the credit for the Minnesota Timberwolves reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04 went to Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns – and deservedly so. They were the team’s two clear-cut best players, who carried Minnesota night in and night out. But even if he would never admit it, another guy who merited some praise for the impressive feat was veteran big man Taj Gibson. The USC product quietly had a fantastic year, averaging 12.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest while shooting a tidy 57.7 percent from the floor.
With Gibson on the floor, the Timberwolves outscored teams by 7.7 points per 100 possessions. He provided Minnesota with toughness that they were severely lacking before his arrival, and his locker-room presence was equally important.
Gibson wasn’t just the respected elder on the team, either. He was one of the deadliest post-up players in the league last season, scoring 1.12 PPP on such looks per Synergy, the highest-rate in the league among players with 125 such chances.
Put simply: Not only does Gibson provide the vital intangibles, his tangible impact was key as well.