As we approach next month’s NBA Trade deadline, I’ll be doing a series of posts examining players who the Clippers could be pursuing in trade negotiations. I’ll cover a wide range of potential targets, including players the Clippers have been linked to in rumors, players who I think would make intriguing targets, and players who I have been asked about by readers. Haven’t seen a breakdown for a player you think the Clippers should pursue? Ask me to add him to the list!
Player Name: Serge Ibaka
Stats: Has played 26.5 minutes per game in 33 appearances for Toronto this season, averaging 14.9 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 50.1% from the field and 37.1% from three on 3.6 attempts per 36.
Contract: Expiring $23.3M contract
Impact on Clippers: High
Let’s rip the band-aid off: this isn’t Oklahoma City Serge Ibaka. Ibaka built his reputation early in his career as a mobile, athletic big man, blocking an absurd 3.3 shots per 36 minutes across his first six seasons and making three consecutive All-Defensive 1st Teams while playing mostly at the power forward position.
At 30 years old, and six years removed from his last All-Defense selection, Ibaka isn’t that guy anymore, but he still has a lot to offer a team like the Clippers. To account for his reduction in mobility, Ibaka has shifted more to center over the years, ending up playing the position almost exclusively for the Raptors in the last two seasons. To be fair, this partially is a result of the roster around him in Toronto, as last year Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam took most of the forward minutes and Marc Gasol is another relatively immobile veteran big man. It seems likely that Ibaka could work as a situational pairing for Montrezl Harrell and, though to a lesser extent, Ivica Zubac.
Despite no longer possessing elite athleticism, Ibaka has transformed his game to remain a plus defender. Nowadays, he’ll play drop coverage more in pick-and-rolls, giving opposing guards more space to operate but avoiding exposing his reduced speed by hedging out on screens. Against slower big men, his individual defense remains solid, and while he might struggle a bit more against the younger, faster, more versatile big men, he’d likely still be the Clippers’ best option in those match-ups. He still has all the defensive smarts and awareness from his younger days, so even though he doesn’t block as many shots in to the third row as he used to, he’s a savvy and effective team defender and rim protector.
Beyond his defense, Ibaka is having a bit of a resurgence after a down year last season, posting a career-best 11.3 rebounds per 36 minutes and a strong 37% from beyond the arc. Another thing working in Serge’s favor: his friendship with Kawhi Leonard from their time together in Toronto last season could help him fit into the Clippers’ locker room easily. Ibaka seems likely to be capable on both ends of the floor, with the reputation and consistency that would make him trustworthy both for Doc Rivers and his new teammates.
Likeliness of Availability: Moderate
This is covered in today’s other Trade Target Breakdown, covering Raptors starter Marc Gasol, but Toronto isn’t giving up hopes of a championship repeat just because NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard left to join the Clippers. They’ve amassed an impressive 30-14 record despite struggling with injuries, and Raptors GM Masai Ujiri said this week that Toronto was “going to die trying” to defend their title from last year.
A team that was predicted to be a “seller” at this year’s deadline, moving off the spare parts from their 2019 Championship team to re-build around Pascal Siakam, is suddenly contending again. Teams like the Clippers, who may have hoped to target Gasol or Ibaka (or even Kyle Lowry) with an odd assortment of contracts and assets, are going to find that Toronto isn’t interested in those kinds of talks. Even a more competitive package that includes one of Montrezl Harrell or Ivica Zubac may not entice the Raptors, who want to try and win another title this year.
So, why do I think Ibaka’s availability is moderate? Because while I don’t think the Raptors are going to trade Ibaka for anything on the Clippers, I still think they may try to trade him at the deadline. The Raptors have been reluctant to play Ibaka and Gasol together for extended minutes this season (basketball-reference shows 100% of Ibaka’s minutes as coming at C, while 92% of Gasol’s have), and if Serge is going to be limited to a backup role in the playoffs, the Raptors could look to flip his large expiring contract at the deadline for a wing threat who is better suited to play in a lineup with Siakam and Gasol, filling in the backup C minutes between a combination of small-ball and/or a downgraded replacement.
Who would the Raptors target? It doesn’t matter all that much for the Clippers. Maybe it’s Danilo Gallinari, who is having another very strong season in Oklahoma City, or Andre Iguodala (less likely), who would give the Raptors experience and playmaking on the wing to help fill the Kawhi void in the postseason. Because Ibaka is still good, I don’t think they’ll move him just to move him, but you can count on Masai Ujiri to make calls and aggressively pursue a move that he thinks will better position his team for a title.
If and when that happens, the Clippers would be wise to be ready to enter the fray, either offering to contribute value to Toronto’s trade partner to facilitate a mutually beneficial three-team trade where Ibaka ends up in L.A., or simply approaching Ibaka’s destination about a subsequent trade where the veteran on an expiring deal could be exchanged for a package from the Clippers.