It seemed like the Clippers might be in a bit of a spot after they lost Montrezl Harrell — and perhaps more crucially, JaMychal Green — at the start of free agency. But then they rebounded to make arguably the best signing of any Western Conference team by adding Serge Ibaka, the perfect center for this Clippers roster.
The Clippers have high hopes for Ibaka as the missing piece to get them over the hump and help them win a title. In order to figure out what exactly makes Ibaka worthy of these expectations, we reached out to Sean Woodley, the host of Locked on Raptors and an editor at Raptors HQ, our SB Nation Raptors blog. Here’s what Sean had to say.
What made Ibaka valuable during the championship run?
I mean, most importantly, he didn’t try to tip in Kawhi’s four-bounce shot — perhaps his most notable contribution to the team on the court in his three and a half years here. More seriously, Ibaka’s value to the championship run wasn’t consistent night to night, but rather came in a handful of games in which he was desperately needed. Game 7 against the Sixers will probably go down as his best and most important game as a Raptor. In addition to his discretion on the final play of the game, he was second on the team with 17 points, including one of the coolest threes any Raptor has ever drained, and probably the second biggest shot of the night by any Raptor, right in Ben Simmons’ eye.
nah there was no way the raptors were gonna lose after serge ibaka of all people hit a pull up 3 lmao pic.twitter.com/7MEu5Asdeg— William Lou (@william_lou) May 13, 2019
Serge had three of the seven triples the Raptors hit in that entire game. Although he wasn’t much of a factor against the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, he was freaking nails in the final three games of the Finals, combining for 50 total points. His third-quarter run in Game 4 inspired my first instance of thinking “holy sh*t, they might win the title.”
Was he similarly effective last season or did he show any signs of decline? If so, how?
Serge was quite literally better than he’s ever been last season. He saw his three-point percentage bump back up to just under 40 percent after shooting in the high 20s in the title season, and I’m not sure I recall him missing a pick-and-pop 18-footer even one time. His comfort playing center — which he probably should have been doing since 2015 but only started doing in the championship season — clearly grew, and he even chipped in a career-high 2.5 assists per 36 minutes. He’s not some short-roll passing wizard or anything, but the Raptors’ fun-for-all system did acclimatize him to making some of the basic passes he has never really been known for in the past.
What I’m most curious to see is whether the success Ibaka found over the last couple seasons will carry over when Kyle Lowry is not the one finding him for most of his looks. Lowry’s a genius and had better chemistry with Serge than just about any player on the team. I’m skeptical Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley will be able to put Ibaka in the positions to succeed that Lowry did so effortlessly. If we do start to see any decline in Ibaka this season, I’d suspect a glaring lack of Lowry will be the culprit.
In what situations is Ibaka not as useful? Why didn’t he play as much against Boston in the playoffs?
Serge still has the reputation of being a great defender, but in actuality he’s not the same player on that end he used to be, particularly when he’s asked to cover ground. He’s perfectly fine as a stay-at-home rim protector in drop coverage, but in that Boston series, things really called for the Raptors to switch as often as possible, and that’s not Serge’s bag. He doesn’t necessarily drive winning when he’s on the floor, either. Last year with Marc Gasol injured a bunch, Ibaka started about half the games he played. Toronto’s starting five with Ibaka at center got outscored by 3.8 points per 100 possessions — with Gasol they had a net Rating of plus-12.9.
As far as the situations in which the Clippers might be counting on Ibaka, I wouldn’t expect him to be some sort of antidote to Nikola Jokic in a potential playoff series. He’s definitely a better overall defender than Montrezl Harrell was, but I’d be wary of expecting him to be some kind of defensive saviour. Jokic is sure to bully him in that hypothetical matchup, and the Anthony Davis-Gasol front court will probably be too stretchy for him to hang. He does tend to punk Rudy Gobert whenever they play, though, so you have that to look forward to.
What was Ibaka’s relationship with Kawhi like, either on or off the court?
It’s hard to totally pinpoint exactly what their friendship meant to each guy. Kawhi is extremely private, and Serge loves everyone. That said, I don’t think Kawhi would have eaten a beef penis at Ibaka’s behest had it been a one-way friendship. It’s safe to say Ibaka was one of the closest friends Kawhi had in Toronto, but of course the bond wasn’t close enough to convince him to stick with the Raptors.
What’s your favorite thing about Ibaka, or what’s something Clippers fans will love about him?
Truth be told, the best thing about Ibaka is everything he brings off the court. It was a big blow to Raptors fans to see him go, but not because it will notably affect the team’s win-loss record. A Raptors team without Ibaka is frankly just a lot less fun to root for. Serge has a way about him. He’s not only a wonderful and engaging personality on his own, but he also brings the best out of his teammates’ personalities too (see: Leonard, Kawhi, beef penis). Basically, he does what every beat reporter wishes they could do but often can’t. If you’re a super-serious, joyless operation — as the Clippers obviously were last year — Ibaka can be the dude to remove the sticks from everyone’s asses. Whether you’re a fan of the team he plays for, or a guy he plays with, Ibaka’s almost surely going to make your viewing experience more fun. My hope is that the lofty expectations of the Clippers won’t crush his spirit.
Two words of advice to Clips fans: don’t let any on-court shortcomings distract you from the absolute joy Ibaka is to support. Not everything and everyone needs to exist in the name of winning a championship. Ibaka won’t fix all the Clippers’ issues on the court, but at the very least he’ll make the journey a hell of a lot more memorable. And number two: don’t claim the scarves thing. You’ll get your own Serge bits to run with in due time. He comes up with new stuff literally every day.
Many thanks to Sean for his insight on Ibaka. In his first media appearance as a Clipper, it was already clear that Ibaka is a uniquely fun individual who should bring some life to the LA locker room. The Clippers need him to add something special on the court as well.