Toronto Raptors: Has Serge Ibaka earned a starting role?

TORONTO, CANADA - JANUARY 22: Serge Ibaka Toronto Raptors (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
TORONTO, CANADA - JANUARY 22: Serge Ibaka Toronto Raptors (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Serge Ibaka’s dominance has been hard to ignore this season. Starting in place of Marc Gasol, he’s played some of the best basketball of his career – so…should the Toronto Raptors consider starting Ibaka over Gasol?

Fresh off a title, the Toronto Raptors have been forced to show how deep their roster is – so far this season, Nick Nurse has only had a full cast of players only two times.

Twice! In 55 games!

Beyond that, Nurse has been forced to mix and match lineup combinations. Injuries to key pieces have seen the likes of G-League MVP Chris Boucher, along with undrafted gem Terence Davis, emerge as key pieces in Toronto’s bid for a repeat. In Boucher’s case, the minutes have come and gone as the year’s gone on, but every time he’s been given an opportunity this season, more often than not the Montreal native has delivered. Boucher’s improvement in the pick-and-roll game is very noticeable in 2019-20.

In terms of injuries at play, Marc Gasol is one piece that’s been missing a fair bit this season. Twice, Gasol has been forced out of action due to hamstring tightness. In his absence, though, Serge Ibaka has dominated. He looks five years younger – partial credit for Ibaka’s resurgence has to go to his scarf collection.

Ibaka has been effective both as a starter and reserve for the post-title Raptors, though, as a starter the impending free agent has been particularly dominant:


23 appearances (19.1 ppg / 8.9 rpg / 57 percent / 46 percent from 3pt / 32 mpg)


21 appearances (13.4 ppg / 7.2 rpg / 47 percent / 33 percent from 3pt / 22 mpg)

The above paints a pretty clear picture, no? Ibaka is doing more damage to the opposition as a starter, shooting 10 percent better from the field and 13 percent better from beyond the arc. In both scenarios, Ibaka’s usage is similar.

Despite the numbers pointing a certain direction, it remains unlikely Nurse will alter Toronto’s starting lineup when Gasol returns. Still unconfirmed, but the belief is Gasol will return out of the all-star break, starting with Toronto’s first game back (February 21 v. Phoenix Suns).

In Gasol’s absence, the Raptors have continued their winning ways. With Ibaka starting in place, Toronto’s five-man starting unit is +4.3 across 101 minutes. Toronto’s traditional starting lineup – with Gasol instead of Serge – has a net rating of 11.7, plus a true shooting percentage of 62 (compared to 59 with Ibaka, so the difference, while negligible, is enough to make the case that Gasol is more effective in the starter’s role than Ibaka. It’s also worth noting Gasol’s lack of experience playing in a reserve role – he’s struggled when asked to do so. Upon arriving in Toronto, Gasol came off the bench and if you recall, looked a bit lost.

Marc Gasol has started over 98 percent of games he’s appeared in (816/830) – at this point, it’s ingrained in his routine. Compared to Ibaka who has started 80 percent of the games he’s played in the NBA. Still a high number, but Ibaka has much more experience as a reserve than does Gasol.

Defensively, Ibaka’s presence and impact are easily identifiable, compared to Gasol. Coming in the form of big blocks and finger wags, Ibaka’s defensive playmaking is seen frequently in highlight packages, whereas Gasol’s brilliance, oftentimes, is unnoticed.

Gasol’s defensive impact is second to none – the Spanish international is neither quick nor gifted in the art of verticality (unless we’re talking charges drawn), however, possessing an unrivalled basketball IQ means that you rarely find Gasol out of position on the defensive end of the floor. His dominance of Joel Embiid proves this. Contrarily, when Ibaka has been matched up with the likes of Embiid, and other dominant bigs in the NBA, he’s mostly struggled.

The verdict

When healthy, Marc Gasol deserves to start for the Toronto Raptors, with the numbers clearly showing this to be the appropriate decision. The playoffs may force Nick Nurse to tinker with lineups, including the starting five, but Gasol deserves to begin games over the scarf artiste known as Serge Ibaka for the time being.

There’s more than a good chance that the two Toronto big men will see time together as the season advances.

Coach Nurse, a man who’s constantly looking for different lineup combinations to sick on opponents, has shown a willingness to play both Gasol and Ibaka at the same time, doing so when big problems call for big solutions.

In past years, that wasn’t the case. Remember all the chatter about playing both Jonas Valanciunas (when he was here) and Serge Ibaka together? It couldn’t be done – Dwane Casey, an old school coach who perhaps lacked the innovative touch of a guy like Nick Nurse, never felt comfortable trotting his two big men out there together. When Casey did do it, it looked clunky.

Nick Nurse is different, I sound like a broken record – he is a master at getting the most out of every lineup. Just look at how effective the team has been despite all the injuries it’s had to cope with this season. Rest assured if he needs to at any point in the regular season or playoffs, NN will play both Gasol and Ibaka together.

But when push comes to shove, because of a more diverse skillset and aided by a 98 percent starting rate over his career, Marc Gasol should remain Toronto’s starting center. Ibaka comes off the bench but sees plenty of time alongside Lowry. The veteran combo has become one of the league’s premier pick-and-roll duos.

Toronto Raptors trash talk. dark. Next

As we’ve seen, in a pinch, should injuries force Ibaka back into the starting lineup, Raptor fans know that he’ll be more than ready for what awaits him in that role.