Over the past few years, it appeared Serge Ibaka’s career was headed in the wrong direction.
Mediocre shooting marks, poor rebounding totals and inefficient scoring all dampened Ibaka’s impact since joining the Toronto Raptors midway through the 2016-17 season, making the shot-blocking big man resemble a shell of his former self.
However, thus far in 2018-19, that has seemingly changed.
Ibaka, through 12 games, is averaging 17.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per contest while shooting 59.3 percent from the floor. The point average and field-goal percentage are both career-highs for the veteran, an incredible feat considering the trajectory Ibaka was on heading into this season.
Additionally, Ibaka’s net rating of +15.6 is also the highest of his time in the NBA, while his swing rating (the difference between a team’s net rating when a player is on the floor versus the team’s net rating when he’s on the bench) of +19.6 is, once again, another career-best mark, as well as one of the best clips in the entire league to this point.
So, what’s changed?
Well, for starters, first-year Raptors head coach Nick Nurse made the (not so) tough decision to move Ibaka to center full time.
Last season, according to Basketball-Reference, Ibaka spent 87 percent of his minutes playing power forward. What’s more, those minutes usually came next to Lithuanian big man Jonas Valanciunas, a throwback plodder of a center who is most comfortable around the basket.
Their styles clashed a bit, rendering Ibaka mostly ineffective last year (as evidenced by his -2.0 swing rating in 2017-18) due to his struggles manning the 4 next to a traditional center like Valanciunas.
Ibaka wasn’t (and still isn’t) a consistent enough outside shooter to force opponents to respect him when he would spot up from beyond the arc, his ball handle isn’t tight enough to blow by other big men on the perimeter and his playmaking will never be a plus.
Simply put: All of those deficiencies made slotting Ibaka into the power-forward spot a fruitless endeavor, and he went from being a difference-maker in his heyday to being… not that as a member of the Raptors.
What did Nurse do to change that so quickly?
To this point, he’s given Ibaka approximately zero minutes at power forward, and zero minutes next to Valanciunas. In comparison, last year, Ibaka and Valanciunas were sharing the floor for roughly just north of 20 minutes nightly.
Ibaka’s shift one spot up on the positional scale has made a world of difference.
Now, with most of his shots coming around the rim as opposed to 20-plus feet out, he’s having the most efficient offensive season of his career. Not only do that raw stats tell us that…
…but so do the advanced metrics.
Prior to this year, Ibaka’s previous career-best offensive box plus/minus was a meager +0.2. This season? He’s at a whopping +1.4. Furthermore, his Win Shares/48 (0.198) are also way up from the previous top mark of his career (0.181).
Shot selection has a lot to do with that.
As we mentioned earlier, Ibaka, despite expanding his game to the three-point line over recent years, just wasn’t a good enough outside shooter to justify how much time he was spending camped out at the arc. Over the previous three seasons, he made 36.5 percent of his three-point looks, a decent enough clip for a big man, but one that hovered right around league average.
Now, thanks to being a full-time 5, Ibaka is taking 28.7 percent of his shots from within three feet of the rim, his highest rate since 2013-14. And he’s been absolutely deadly from there.
Thanks to his still-impressive athleticism, decent touch and always-insane length, Ibaka has been crushing it with his rim-forays. According to Synergy Sports, the Congolese big man is scoring an absurd 1.59 points per possession (PPP) as the pick-and-roll roll man, a mark that puts him in the league’s 97th percentile. That’s the second-most effective rate among players with at least 30 such opportunities, trailing only All-NBA and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert.
In addition, less spotting up and more action around the basket has also led Ibaka to cut more often, another area where he’s thrived thus far. Through 12 games, Ibaka already has 17 possessions where he’s cut to the basket, per Synergy. Over 76 games last season, he only cut merely 48 times.
On those cutting possessions this season, Ibaka has produced 1.77 PPP, which places him in the 98th percentile of the NBA. That’s the second-best rate in the league among players with 15 such chances.
Again, it’s not exactly rocket science: Ibaka is long and athletic, so once he gets the ball around the basket, he usually makes finishing look pretty easy.
So after seeing how well Ibaka has played at the 5 this year, one has to wonder: Why didn’t this move happen sooner?
It may be easy to place the blame on the team’s recently fired head coach Dwane Casey, but, like most things, the situation requires a bit more nuance than that.
For one, Casey had to deal with finding enough playing time for both Ibaka and Valanciunas, who the team had made a huge investment on in the form of a four-year, $64 million extension back in 2015. And it’s not like Valanciunas deserved to lose his starting spot due to his play; he’s always been a capable big man who can put up decent numbers when given the opportunity.
Plus, another reason the Ibaka-at-the-5 experiment has worked out so well is thanks to Pascal Siakam’s excellent production at the 4-spot. Though he was impactful in a limited role last season, maybe he just wasn’t ready to become a full-time starter quite yet. And now that he is, it’s allowed Nurse to use Ibaka and Valanciunas as the froncourt member next to him.
Regardless, moving to center has completely rejuvenated Ibaka’s career. His offensive output has statistically never been better, and, more importantly, his production has directly contributed to major success for Toronto early in the year, as the Raptors boast the league’s best record through 12 games at 11-1.
Even if he tails off a bit scoring-wise, Ibaka’s full-time position change has given him a new lease on life. He’s transitioned wonderfully into the next stage of his career, and become a legitimate difference-maker for the first time since his Oklahoma City Thunder days.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @FrankUrbina_.