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  • Nikola Cuvalo

Ibaka’s Ignition: Air Congo Taking Off for Toronto

The Globe and Mail

Three years, $65 million. Those are the details of the contract Serge Ibaka signed with the Toronto Raptors in the summer of 2017. Ever since the deal (which would see him play out his age 30 season in 2020 before becoming an unrestricted free agent) Toronto’s fanbase has been eager to see how effectively Ibaka might honor his payday by fitting into his designated role of tertiary star player.

Handsomely compensated to play third-fiddle to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, Ibaka’s role has not changed significantly since the well-chronicled Kawhi Leonard trade. Being paid in excess of $20 million per year in the modern NBA portends serious responsibility in terms of one’s role on the roster, and demands a certain level of borderline All-Star production.

Admittedly, after the results of his first full season with Raptors in 2017-2018, one could be forgiven for believing his new deal would turn into an ugly financial albatross – the kind of contract that could slam shut the potential championship window of a pseudo-contender by crippling roster flexibility.

After putting up a meagre stat-line of 12.6ppg/6.3rpg/0.8apg on a 48(fg%)/36(3pt%)/80(ft%) shooting, Raptors fans were beginning to form a single-file line at the door of president Masai Ujiri to voice their outrage. Despite the belly-aching of Raptors faithful, Ujiri remained confident in Ibaka’s overall organizational fit, which revolved around his athleticism, stroke from beyond the arc, and high basketball-IQ.

Ujiri, as he always seems to be, was one step ahead of the doubtful majority; taking an educated risk on his rather large investment. He bet that the impact of Nick Nurse’s promotion to head coach would revitalize Ibaka’s game. Connecting the dots on a purely conceptual level, Ujiri pushed forward through an offseason characterized by both roster and managerial turnover, hell-bent on realizing the potential of a fringe-star player still in his prime.

As we know now, Ujiri did not pay for a player in decline. And he was right to bet on Nurse.

Ibaka, now in the second season of that three-year deal, is putting up a stat-line far more befitting of his pay grade: 16.7ppg/7.5rpg/1.3apg on shooting splits of 55/29/84. Having played 31 of the Raptor’s 35 games this season (sidelined temporarily by a knee injury), Ibaka has spent the majority of his time playing center for the small-ball inclined Raptors. Having been miscast as a power forward in his first year, Nick Nurse’s first order of business was to slide Ibaka into the Raptor’s starting-5 spot. The team’s offensive spacing has blossomed in response.

Ibaka, for his part, leads the Raptors in total rebounds and leads the team in blocks per 36 minutes (minimum 100 minutes played). Despite his career-low shooting percentage from beyond the arc this season, his value as a pick-and-roll partner for Lowry and Leonard has been tremendous. The Raptor’s most-played five-man lineup this year of Lowry-Green-Leonard-Siakam-Ibaka has blitzed opponents to the tune of a +12.3 Net Point Difference per 100 possessions.

His value as a ball-hawking, lane-roaming anchor on the less glamorous end of the floor has been integral to these Raptors running out to a league-leading 25-10 start, and is what drives his worth to the point of potentially substantiating that rich contract.

While Ibaka has begun life under his new coach with aplomb, he will be expected to not only maintain this level of production, but exceed it come playoff time. With the Raptors’ path to a first-ever NBA Finals appearance clearer than ever, those contract dollars will never be viewed with greater scrutiny. This currently reignited version of Ibaka will be tasked with staying healthy, continuing to play All-NBA level defense, and rediscovering the long-range stroke that would perfect his fit into the small-ball center role on these dangerous Nurse-led Raptors.

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