When looking through a scope, Ibaka has been the better center for the Toronto Raptors when compared to Gasol. But when you look at the whole picture, you’d notice Ibaka’s impact is not nearly as close to Gasol’s.
It is an understatement to say that Serge Ibaka has been playing well. He has exceeded everyone’s expectations this year and has been a difference-maker on many occasions for the Toronto Raptors. With his contract expiring at the end of the season, he has shown a strong interest in wanting to stay in Toronto, but the feeling shouldn’t be mutual.
Why? Well for starters, the Toronto Raptors aren’t even a that great a team when Ibaka is a starter in place of Marc Gasol. They seem to play off Ibaka more than they should when he is on, resulting in fewer threes and more mid-range shots. Something the Toronto Raptors usually tend to avoid. His playstyle diminishes the team’s success overall and let’s start by comparing him to Gasol.
Comparing a modern center to a 2000s center
We already know Marc Gasol is a facilitator on the offensive end and can stretch the floor quite nicely. Ibaka is more of a “pure scorer,” a player who can score from pretty much anywhere on the court but doesn’t really set up his teammates. Ibaka is a black hole on offense. When he gets the ball, 90% of the time he will try to score, regardless of where he is.
It’s not really a bad thing, he has been scoring at a very efficient rate. Scoring 73% at the rim, 46% from mid-range, and 40% from three. The problem is more where his shots are being taken. He takes the most shots from mid-range, where 43% of his shots are coming from. While only 32% and 25% of his shots are from the rim and three, respectively.
Gasol plays a much more modern game, the type of game the Toronto Raptors want to play. Which is scoring at the rim and shooting 52% of his shots from three. Although Gasol himself doesn’t score much at the rim, he aids his teammates in doing so. Stretching the floor and creating more space for his teammates to drive or for him to find cutters from on top of the key.
Gasol caters much more to the Raptors style. A team that takes the third least mid-range shots, but rank among the top 6 in shots taken around the rim and from three. Nick Nurse plays the modern game, much like most teams, while Ibaka is not helping the cause.
It probably doesn’t look that bad, realistically how bad can a pretty good scorer like Ibaka hurt the team compared to Gasol? It’s actually very drastic. Since Gasol has missed a lot of time due to injury, Ibaka has taken his place as a starter making for a pretty good sample size to compare the two.
When Gasol is a starter alongside the other regular four starters (Lowry, VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam), the team scores 115.1 points and allows 102.9 points per 100 possessions, for a difference of +12.3, stats per Cleaning The Glass.
With Ibaka as their starting center, the team scores only 103.9 and allows 107.9 points per 100 possessions, for a difference of -3.9. So the team is 15 points worse total when Ibaka is the starting center in place of Gasol.
Ibaka’s outdated playstyle is the biggest issue
This is also coming in a season that Ibaka has been playing his best basketball ever, but the style he plays doesn’t equate the best results for the team. Mostly a result of his playing style that resembles the style of an old-fashioned power forward, think Al Jefferson.
One that doesn’t create and tries to score from just about anywhere except behind the arc. A player who made an All-NBA team at the age of 29, and only four years later he was out of the league because he couldn’t spread the floor or create for others — for his career, Jefferson averaged only 1.5 assists.
We know that Ibaka has adapted his play to the modern era of basketball earlier than most, but apart from shooting a couple of threes a game, the rest of his game is still very similar to Al Jefferson offensively.
In the last 4 seasons with Toronto, Ibaka has always had a negative plus/minus, just like a former Toronto Raptors player center, Jonas Valančiūnas. When the Toronto Raptors traded Jonas Valančiūnas, one reason was because of his outdated style of play. JV never even had a positive +/- differential in his time with the Raptors, even though he was a starter for multiple 50+ win teams.
What is a successful center then?
The Toronto Raptors took the blueprint from the Golden State Warriors when they traded for Marc Gasol last season. The Warriors had Andrew Bogut, a playmaking big that complimented others when they won their first championship. He may not have stretched the floor as Gasol did, but he was a low usage center that created for others, just like Gasol.
Of course, there are exceptions, like the Lakers use of two low usage centers like Dwight Howard and Javale McGee, that has worked — they both take less than 5 shots a game.
But Ibaka takes 12 shots a game, taking away on potential open threes and slowing the pace of the game for a team that usually plays a high pace with Gasol on. Gasol takes half the amount of shots that Ibaka takes. Gasol passes 83 percent of the time on his touches, while Ibaka only does that 64 percent of the time.
All stats show that having a supportive role center is what brings winning basketball. Ibaka has been great, but it’s just not what’s actually best for them. There is a reason Gasol is still a starter despite Ibaka’s better individual season.
Ibaka will be demanding to look for a very lucrative contract this off-season, and it’s pretty clear what the Toronto Raptors should do. There are various other reasons why he shouldn’t be signed (potential Giannis signing, prioritizing VanVleet and OG…) but just his style alone should be an indicator that Ibaka is not an answer to modern-day winning basketball.