Toronto Raptors: Should Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka play together?

Toronto Raptors - Marc Gasol (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - Marc Gasol (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images) /
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The Toronto Raptors have two talented centers and only 48 minutes to go around. As the Raptors gear up for the playoffs, should Nick Nurse play Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka together?

Nick Nurse has his work cut out for him over the next 20 games. Integrating new players into a roster is never easy, and boy do the Toronto Raptors have a lot to integrate in limited time.

Nurse has 20 games to figure out how Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin fit, 20 games to see what Patrick McCaw and Jodie Meeks can offer, and less than 10 games to mesh Fred VanVleet back in the rotation.

However, his most important decision might be one that he made before the year started. Can/should Serge Ibaka play power forward or is he strictly a center in today’s modern-era? Marc Gasol has changed some of the variables of that equation, and it’s time to reexamine.

Can Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka play together?

Much of the conversation has been focussed around which of player should start, and that is important to some extent. But the more important question is whether Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol share the court with one another.

Nurse has been reluctant to do so thus far. In Gasol’s six games and 124 minutes with the Raptors, he’s played only five alongside Ibaka, with the five minutes split between four games. The two have yet to play one significant stretch together.

To some level, it makes sense. Ibaka has proven he is a center and no longer a power forward. Playing the two together puts Ibaka out of position to some extent.

But Gasol and Ibaka are two of the team’s best players. Can Toronto afford to play each of them only 20-28 minutes per game? Are the Raptors really at their best when limiting both players to only half of the contest?

It’s an interesting question which depends almost entirely on how the two fit alongside one another.

Offense

Offensively, they should have enough space to make it work. Ibaka has regressed as a three-point shooter this season, but his mid-range game is still fully intact. Gasol, on the other hand, is a fantastic three-point shooter, draining 79 triples already this season.

Both players have the ability to play outside or inside. With Ibaka matched up against power forwards and Gasol’s passing ability, the two could develop a nice high-low, two-man game.

But it’s 2019. Do you really want to be playing a 1990’s style of basketball on the offensive end? Even if they have the ability to stretch the floor, bigs tend to hang out around the rim. Adding bodies around the hoop deters players like Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard from attacking the basket.

Toronto has built their offense on modern principles. If Ibaka and Gasol share the court together, those principles go out the window. With two bigs, Toronto no longer looks like a new-age, analytic friendly team. That doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t be effective, but it’s also not encouraging.

Offensively, the two have malleable enough games to make it work. Whether it’s an upgrade or not is much more questionable.

Defense

On offense, the Raptors can almost certainly make it work, but limit their upside. On defense, there is a little more boom-or-bust potential.

Last season, with Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka on the floor, the Raptors posted a defensive rating of 105.8, better than the team’s current 107.3 rating this season. Yes, league-wide offense is up this year, but not quite to this degree. Clearly, the Raptors found a way to make two-bigs work defensively last season.

That same defense fell apart during the postseason. It wasn’t the Raptors offense which let them down in the playoffs, it was their inability to get a stop. The Cavaliers three-point-heavy offense pulled Serge Ibaka to the three-point line and exposed the Raptors antiquated defense.

As a result, Toronto has played a more active, switching style throughout this season. The Raptors defense isn’t as good on paper as last year, but with three athletic, switchy defenders playing 2-4, it should translate better.

With Ibaka at power forward, Toronto won’t be able to switch as much. Serge is quick for a center, but he certainly doesn’t have Pascal’s ability to guard the perimeter. Toronto would need to revert to last year’s style of defense, defending the pick-and-roll with two players and switching as little as possible.

There are certainly upsides to having Ibaka and Gasol on the floor together. For starters, the team’s poor defensive rebounding numbers would almost certainly improve. Beyond that, having more size on the court helps in many defensive areas.

But playing the two alongside another would change many of the defensive assignments and habits the Raptors have been practicing all year. With 20 games left, is there enough time to integrate a new, separate defense that may have trouble translating to the playoffs?

Next. Five biggest what ifs in Raptors history. dark

Verdict

With some time to gel, Toronto should be able to survive minutes Gasol and Ibaka share on the court. However, there’s very little evidence that the pairing would thrive and certainly no evidence they would be one of Nurse’s best options.

Injuries and foul trouble happen, and Nurse should allow the two limited minutes together for “just-in-case” scenarios. As for making the combo a part of the team’s consistent rotation, don’t expect it anytime soon.