Phoenix Suns Free Agency Target Breakdown: Serge Ibaka

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Free agency is looming. I think. The NBA has yet to provide the official date that players will opt to change cities, excite fan bases, and potentially be the missing piece for franchises. While we are used to playing the “who are the Suns pursuing” game in late-June, we’ll have to settle for a mid-October discussion with hopes that we see action sometime in 2020.

Fine by me!

Although the date remains in limbo, you can’t help but begin to ponder the players that James Jones is eyeing to add to the Phoenix Suns roster. The back-and-forth among Suns fans as to what our positional needs are has made for intriguing arguments. Solidify the bench? Add a power forward? Invest in our guard play? All are valid arguments as to what it will take to push the Suns into the playoff picture.

As I begin to dissect what it will take to get a recognizable name to Phoenix, let’s begin with different factors:

The Money

The ultimate x-factor is knowing what the cap is going to be entering the 2020-21 season. We don’t. It is difficult to identify players based on what their salary could be without knowing the the specifics of what money the Suns will have available to spend. Is a Christian Wood out of our spending budget? Most likely, but we truly don’t know yet.

Dave King does a stellar job of breaking down how the monies work this off-season in this piece. What I gather from looking at the Suns funds is, if we want to pursue a solid contributor in free agency, the budget will most likely be around $12-$15 million. My math is probably wrong; I’m not the “how do contracts work expert” by any means. Regardless, I’m using that number as my baseline when filtering through available free agents.

The team, if an effort to fill the roster, would have to re-sign RFA’s (Carter, Okobo) and keep team option players (Payne, Kaminsky).

$12-$15 million can be used to sign some veteran minimum contracts. Or it is enough money to make one impact move.

What Does the Team Need?

This is the topic we spend hours upon hours discussing on the Suns JAM Session Podcast.

The Bubble Boyz excited us with their consistent play and ability to navigate 4 quarters successfully with continual offense and defense. We saw very few lulls in production on both ends of the floor. This is what pushes teams to over the hump and into victories. It was pleasant to see James Jones’ blueprint come to fruition.

Heading into next season, knowing that the roster will see turnover, the end goal is to recreate the magic that occurred in Orlando and extrapolate that over an entire season. Identifying the what the team needs to do so is paramount to ensure this will occur.

I am in the camp that solidifying our front court is the primary area of focus this off season. Our back court is in good hands and may be fortified with the #10 pick in the draft (the more I watch him, the more I like Desmond Bane and the possibility of trading down to draft him). We’re losing Baynes. We may lose Saric. Kaminsky, if the Suns exercise his team option, is not a long term viable option as a back up to Ayton at center.

Despite all of the flashy guard play and record-setting three point numbers, what the 2020 postseason has taught us is the need for an athletic front court. We have Ayton. We have Bridges. We have Cam Johnson.

We need one more center/power forward to solidify the front court depth.

The Free Agent Player Pool

My baseline is set for the money available for the need I believe free agency can address. Who is available?

The 2020 free agent class isn’t one that we’ll look back at and be amazed by the names. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Jonah Bolden. Derrick Favors. I don’t find myself gravitating towards many of the players becoming available this off season.

It’s not 2021, where names like Giannis, Kawhi, and LeBron litter the availability sheet.

Austin Kent of SLAM Online created a tiered list of upcoming free agents that is quite useful in identifying available players. Who doesn’t love a good tier list, eh? The tiers range from the “pre-pacakaged superstar” (Anthony Davis and Brandon Ingram) to the “scrapping for opportunity” tier (Jahlil Ofakor, Corey Brewer).

While scrolling through Kent’s list you start to put the pieces together on the archetype the Suns are looking for. Is it the “veteran support” player or the “high ceiling rotation piece”? Do we need the “re-purposed veteran” or the “mystery value” guy?

I find myself drawn to the “proven impact player” tier, which is the same tier Aron Baynes finds himself in. Kent defines this tier as, “None of the players will command max money or even a featured role in any new team’s offense but they can immediately tilt the scales for whichever franchise they land with. These players are safe, often nomadic, with a track record of performing consistently. If the fit and the price are right, it’s a perfect marriage with postseason implications.”

This sounds like the ideal definition of what the Suns should add this off season to fortify the roster.

The Fit: Serge Ibaka

Who do I feel meets the Suns need as a back up center/power forward that Phoenix can sign in the $12-$15 million range? If you read the title of this piece, you would know that I believe it is 31 year-old 7’0” C/PF Serge Ibaka.

The unrestricted free agent had the best scoring output of his career this past season (15.4 ppg), his best year assisting (1.4 apg), and his second best rebounding season (8.2 rpg). What I find intriguing is that he posted these statistics while starting 27 of his 55 games played (49%). He shot 38.5% from deep on 3.3 three-point attempts per game.

His effectiveness coming off the bench and leading the second unit assisted in propelling Toronto to the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Serge has evolved his game at the landscape around him has changed. Once upon a time he was, as 213Hoops puts it, a “lob-finishing, shot-blocking hyper-athletic power forward”. Nowadays he has morphed into a perimeter player who can shoot three’s while maintaining the ability to drive and finish.

Conversely, Serge’s defensive skills have begun to diminish as he ages. He no longer is “Serge Il-block-a”, posting a league-leading 3.7 blocks-per-game like he did for OKC in 2011-12. He averaged 0.8 this past season. Per BBall-Index, his movement distance rating (whether he covers a lot of ground for the offensive role he is in relative the others in his position) is an F as he is rated in the 9%tile. The guy is slowing down, yet his technique is still serviceable enough to allow him to be successful.

What he lacks in prime athleticism he makes up for experience. He is a player who has made the playoffs in 10 of his 11 seasons in the NBA. The benefits of his play, his style, and his veteran presence makes him a clear choice to add to any young roster.

Ibaka is coming off of a three-year, $64 million contract with the Toronto Raptors. One of those years, 2018-19, included winning an NBA Championship for the North. He is a player exiting his prime, which should assist in lowering his price tag. Couple that with a volatile market due to COVID and teams may not be willing to continue to provide $20 million per-year price tag.

The challenge of getting him to Phoenix, however, is his feeling towards the city of Toronto. Serge stated, “I’m gonna stay, bro. This place is beautiful. It’s a beautiful city, beautiful people here and we have one of the best teams. Why leave, bro? Go where?”

What this could equate to is the proverbial hometown discount for the Raptors. He may choose his affinity for location over his desire to cash in. Hopefully the changing culture in Phoenix can lure him away from Hogtown (I was today year’s old when I learned that Toronto possessed that nickname).

Monty Williams was the associate head coach for the 2015-16 Thunder, which was Ibaka’s last season in Oklahoma City. A relationship does exist that can get the Suns’ foot in the door with Ibaka. We now sit back an anxiously await for free agency to begin (or even be announced) and hope that Serge Ibaka walks through that door with a Suns uniform on.