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2020-21 Clippers season in review: Serge Ibaka

Serge Ibaka was exactly who the Clippers hoped he’d be until his back acted up.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to our annual Clippers season in review series. Every day until the end of July, we’ll be taking a look back at the players who ended the season with the Clippers (apologies to Malik Fitts and Mfiondu Kabengele). Today, we continue with Serge Ibaka.

Key information:

Name: Serge Ibaka

Age: 31

Years in the NBA: 12

Key stats: Ibaka played in 41 regular-season games for the Clippers, averaging 11.1 points and 6.7 rebounds in 23.3 minutes per contest as the team’s starting center. He only played 18 total minutes over two games in the postseason.

Future contract status: Ibaka has a player option worth $9.7 million for the second year of the deal that he signed last summer. He has to decide by August 1 whether to opt in or become an unrestricted free agent.

Summary:

At the time of his signing, Serge Ibaka’s acquisition saved the Clippers offseason. Whether his arrival was more consequential than Nic Batum’s or even Reggie Jackson’s re-signing is definitely up for debate now, but in the moment, the Clippers had lost JaMychal Green and Montrezl Harrell. They needed another big, and they got arguably the best one on the market.

Ty Lue surprised many when he made Ibaka the starting center during the preseason, but it was an early insight into Lue’s philosophy of spacing the floor to give his star wings more room to operate. The starting lineup with Ibaka, Batum, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley went gangbusters to begin the year, outscoring opponents by 17.3 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. When Jackson subbed in for Beverley, that differential jumped to 32.0 points per 100 possessions, though that five-man group only played 78 minutes together.

And that was the problem with Ibaka’s debut season in Los Angeles: availability. Ibaka only missed one game through the first half of the year, but then had to leave early against New Orleans on March 14 with back tightness. He wouldn’t return until the final two games of the regular season, later revealing that he had a pinched nerve. He played sparingly in the first two postseason contests before having season-ending back surgery. It’s unclear what his status is for the start of the 2021-22.

Strengths:

Fashion, first and foremost.

But on the court, the addition of Ibaka allowed the Clippers to play five out because of his ability to space the floor. The team shot substantially more 3-pointers when Ibaka played and also shot better in the paint because of the stretched defenses.

Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Clippers
Ibaka was a weapon for the Clippers as a roller and popper.
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Although Ibaka had gravity as a shooter, the Clippers often used him in the pick-and-roll as a roller. Ibaka shot well around the rim, converting 73 percent of his shots within four feet of the basket. He was also a good passer out of the short roll, posting the highest assist percentage of his career (10.9), an above-average mark for a big. The Clippers scored 1.23 points per possession when Ibaka was the roll man.

Ibaka actually had more of an impact defensively. He’s not exactly a switch defender at this point of his career, but Ibaka is still active and mobile. He blocked shots without fouling and helped keep opposing teams off the defensive glass. He was surrounded by excellent defenders in the starting five, and he also proved to be the capable rim protector those perimeter players needed to back them up.

Weaknesses:

Despite his reputation, Ibaka’s shooting fell off a bit this season. He was particularly bad in the floater range, which is where his post-up attempts would often end up. The Clippers scored 0.76 points per possession on Ibaka post-ups, a stark drop-off from his other play types, like pick-and-rolls, spot-ups, and putbacks, all of which averaged at least a point per possession. Sometimes, it felt like the Clippers were only feeding the ball to Ibaka in the post to assuage his ego as he played he fewest minutes per game of his career since his rookie season.

Ibaka only shot 33.9 percent from 3-point range, which would have been great when he first got into the league, but no longer represents an average mark, even for a big. His long midrangers went in 63 percent of the time, and he shot 81.1 percent from the free-throw line, so perhaps it was a fluky regression for Ibaka. Either that, or he really missed Kyle Lowry’s passes.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Dallas Mavericks v LA Clippers
By the end of the season, we saw much more of Ibaka in his admittedly excellent fits than in his uniform.
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Again, the biggest problem with Ibaka was that he didn’t play enough. Even though he isn’t a great switch defender anymore, he still could have super-charged the Clippers’ small lineups had he been available during the postseason.

Future with the Clippers:

Ibaka holds his Clippers future in his hands. He can choose to return at a salary that fairly rates his contributions to the team, especially considering his current injury situation. He can even opt out but sign for a longer-term deal if he prefers the security; the Clippers would have to oblige since they don’t have a good way of replacing him, given that DeMarcus Cousins is nowhere near the defensive player Ibaka is. Of the teams that have cap space, Ibaka would be a good fit in Dallas if the Mavericks strike out on their bigger targets.

It’s hard to see Ibaka leaving, though Leonard’s decision could throw a wrench into everything. The real question regarding Ibaka this offseason probably isn’t if he rejoins the Clippers — it’s what version of Ibaka he will be after back surgery. For the Clippers to achieve their ceiling, he needs to be the player he was at the start of 2020-21.