The Toronto Raptors centers have a skillset unlike any else

Toronto Raptors - Marc Gasol (Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - Marc Gasol (Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Toronto Raptors have two centers who can space the floor and protect the rim. That unique pairing is an overlooked aspect of the roster’s construction.

When looking at the Toronto Raptors biggest strengths as a team, you probably think of defensive versatility, team IQ, and 48 minutes of high-end point guard play. Those are all true, and yes, those make a big difference. However, one of the most underrated aspects of the roster’s construction is Marc Gasol‘s and Serge Ibaka‘s unique combination of rim-protection and shooting.

Yes, even as the NBA game continues to slowly slide farther and farther from the hoop, rim protection is still the premier skill a center can provide. More shots come at the rim than from either the mid-range or from 3, and those shots at the basket are still the most efficient in basketball.

The game’s three best defensive big men, (at least according to Defensive Player of the Year voting) Rudy Gobert, Myles Turner, and Joel Embiid, aren’t known for their ability to switch and keep up on the outside. They’re known for their shot-blocking and rim protection.

While Ibaka and Gasol are clearly not the same type of defenders as those top-end talents, they still are extremely valuable in their own right.

Their ability as rim-protectors

Ibaka has made three all-defensive teams; Gasol is a former defensive player of the year. Ibaka has led the NBA in blocks four times; Gasol has finished in the top-10 three different times.

And while yes, both players are past their prime, particularly their shot-blocking prime, they still both know how to protect the basket. Last season, both Gasol and Ibaka ranked in the top-25 of the league in total blocks.

More importantly, they’re also discouraging shots at the rim altogether. Opponents shot 1.8-percent fewer shots at the rim with Ibaka on the court last year, ranking him in the 78th-percentile at his position (According to CleaningTheGlass). While with the Grizzlies (and over the course of his career) Gasol has also allowed fewer shots at the basket. Last year opponents shot 2.3-percent fewer shots with Marc on the court during his time in Memphis. His percentage dropped (but was still good) while in Toronto. But that was largely due to the fact his minutes were split against Ibaka.

Between Ibaka and Gasol, Toronto is getting 48 minutes of solid rim protection on a nightly basis.

Their abilities as shooters

If rim protection is the most valuable skill, the second most valuable might be the ability to neutralize that protection. Centers who are capable of spacing the floor can greatly reduce an opposing big man’s presence around the hoop.

The Toronto Raptors have two centers who are capable of doing just that.

Marc Gasol has made at least 99 3-pointers each of the past three seasons (Man, this would read a lot cleaner if he had made just one more last year). During that time, Gasol is one of three seven-footers with at least 300 triples (Brook Lopez and Karl-Anthony Towns are the others). He’s also a career 35-percent bomber, combining both volume and efficiency together.

Up until last season, Ibaka was just as good from beyond the arc. He’s a career 36-percent three-point shooter and has made more than 450 3’s since coming into the league. Last year, however, Ibaka’s percentages dropped to just 29-percent.

What didn’t fall off was Ibaka’s silky smooth mid-range game. In 2017-2018, Ibaka shot 50-percent from the mid-range, ranking the 90th percentile at his position (according to CTG). He’s shot at least 46-percent from the mid-range since 2012-2013, always finishing in the top quarter of the league at his position. While those shots still aren’t incredibly efficient, making lumbering centers defend you 20-feet away from the hoop is incredibly important.

Pairing shooting with defensive impact

When you think of the best big-man shooters in the NBA, it’s almost a given that they’ll be a negative on the other end. Players like Kevin LoveLauri Markkanen, Davis Bertans, and many other 3-point capable big men, give teams an abundance of spacing on the offensive end of the court at the cost of defense and rim protection.

The Raptors, however,  have two players with the rare combination of an ability to space the floor AND impact the game defensively. Ibaka and Gasol are 2-of-16 players with a minimum of .5 3-pointers per game and a defensive box-plus-minus of at least 1. Toronto and Milwaukee were the only teams with multiple players to qualify last season.

Next. What are the odds of each Raptor making the team?. dark

The Raptors don’t have a top-five center on the roster. They also have a lot of money tied up at center for good, but not great, production. However, what they do have is two players with a unique skill set designed to maximize others. Toronto’s shooting and rim-protection from the center position is a great attribute to have.