NBA Preseason 2019: Finding the right role for the Raptors’ Serge Ibaka

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Last season after the Raptors traded for Marc Gasol, there was a bit of back-and-forth regarding the status of Serge Ibaka. As you’ll recall, Toronto really did try starting both of them in different games for about a month. And then Ibaka hauled off on Marquese Chriss, got suspended for three games, and didn’t start another game for Toronto as they marched their way to the 2019 NBA Championship.

At the time this all made sense. Ibaka, characterized as a proud veteran, took his new role with the comfort of knowing he was doing what was best for a team with legit title aspirations. But now it’s a new season and the Raptors still have both Ibaka and Gasol as the only true centres on the team — and there isn’t quite the same golden dream to be had.

Does Ibaka have a legitimate gripe if he isn’t given a chance to start games again? Will Toronto load manage both him and Gasol in some capacity to shift their roles around? Just what job will Ibaka have on this Raptors team now?

Towards that aim, let’s try to figure out the precentages here.

Backup Centre

It stands to reason that Ibaka will start the season coming off the bench. The Raptors lineup that makes the most sense, as far as I can tell, is Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell (or Fred VanVleet) in the backcourt, with OG Anunoby back in the starting lineup across from Pascal Siakam and Gasol. In this scenario, Ibaka (along with Norm or Fred) become the two most prominent subs off the bench (with Stanley Johnson, Patrick McCaw, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson filling out the rest of the spots in some order/capacity).

If I’m Ibaka at 30 years old and in a contract year, this situation is only made tenable by considering the other 45 percent of this ratio (well, 35 percent, as you’ll see in the next section). Even if Ibaka is a friendly teammate and personality nowadays, it has to be tough to swallow the idea that the starter contract money he’s earned over the last few seasons is gone for good — especially with 4-5 years still left to play. I have to assume Raptors management knows this and understands that keeping Ibaka happy in the short term is best for the team and, in a sense, for him too. A happy Serge is a productive Serge, is my point.

Time Spent in This Position: 55%

Starting Centre

If you skimmed the Athletic piece I linked to up there, Eric Koreen makes mention of an “ill-defined load management plan” for Gasol. This has been mentioned elsewhere this preseason, and it speaks to both the busy summer Gasol had playing in the FIBA World Cup, and the fact that he’s 35 years old. The Raptors made load management a thing with Kawhi, and while Gasol is no longer in that class as a player, he definitely is right there as a possible injury risk.

So then, we can safely assume that Gasol will rest some games. On top of that, we can project that coach Nick Nurse could get back to some of his centre-swapping of yesteryear, especially in the early part of the season while he tinkers to find what works. Does this part of the equation last past the first month or so of the season? Maybe not. But it adds to the idea that Ibaka could see himself starting in the order of 25-30 games for Toronto this season. (This, assuming Gasol sits for, say, 15-20 games — around the same amount Kawhi sat last season — but that’s really just a wild guess.)

Time Spent in This Position: 35%

Starting Power Forward

The biggest tinkering idea Nurse has put forward so far is, of course, a re-emergence of the Siakam-Ibaka-Gasol frontcourt trio. It was used in the 2019 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals against the Sixers, thanks to their mega-big main lineups, but we do have to question its utility against many other teams in the league.

The benefits? Good luck finding a small forward that can guard Siakam in the post; good luck trying to get rebounds against Toronto; good luck trying to deal with the Lowry-Ibaka pick-and-pop while also worrying about Siakam and Gasol on the perimeter; good luck just trying to score on that much size and smarts.

The downside: the Raptors would have to look to a bench unit made up of… who(mst)? There isn’t another centre on the team (Chris Boucher tracks as more of a power forward), and putting all three of the team’s most talented frontcourt players leaves whole swaths of minutes open to lineups that just don’t make sense. This is before we even consider the necessity of playing that much size against NBA teams mainly looking for ways to downsize. There’s a situational value for Toronto to have this lineup option, but I don’t see them using as much as Nurse suggests (or teases).

Time Spent in This Position: 5%

Backup Power Forward

If this column was following the “galaxy brain” meme, this would be the final stage. We’ve seen Ibaka play regularly as a starting and backup centre; we’ve seen him work for a whole season and then some as the starting power forward in Toronto (to say nothing of his earlier OKC career); but a regular spot off the bench as a power forward? Save for that aforementioned Sixers series and a bit in the Finals, this has not been the role for Serge.

Unless…

Look, the Raptors have Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam as the starting centre and power forward, respectively. That’s the combo that won them the title. We know that OG Anunoby likely stands to return to the starting lineup (where he excelled in his rookie season) after mostly floundering as an undersized power forward. If we were to put a bet on it, that’s where the smart money would go. And since there is no other NBA-ready centre on Toronto’s roster (again, Boucher doesn’t count; same for Dewan Hernandez), Ibaka naturally goes into that backup centre spot.

Unless…

True to coach Nick Nurse’s word, the Raptors really do roll out more lineups featuring the troika of Siakam, Ibaka, and Gasol. To do that, Serge will presumably be the one coming off the bench, which means we will indeed see him play as the backup power forward. It’s the only way the math works — and since it’ll be necessary against maybe two to four opponents during the regular season, we’ll give it its due here.

Time Spent in This Position: 5%

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Do these ratios make sense to you? Will they make sense to Serge Ibaka? The season rolls ever closer, so we’ll see. What do you think?