Tales of Serge Ibaka’s demise are greatly exaggerated

After Toronto’s acquisition of Serge Ibaka last Tuesday, the reaction was generally positive. While many acknowledged the relatively low price of Terrence Ross and a mid-20’s first round pick, the trade was still not a slam dunk for one reason: Serge Ibaka is no longer elite. On Zach Lowe‘s podcast, he made it clear that Ibaka has been declining defensively for several years. For his part, Tom Haberstroh scoffed at the notion that he should care all too much about a trade surrounding a non-elite player.

Looking at Ibaka’s year to year stats, one can’t help but identify a clear peak. From 2012 to 2014, he amassed three First team all-defensive awards, achieved number 1 in blocks every year, and appeared in the NBA Finals once. In particular, His blocks per 100 possessions paints a worrying trend:

  • 2011: 6.9
  • 2012: 5.0
  • 2013: 4.1
  • 2014: 3.7
  • 2015: 2.9
  • 2016: 2.6

While this statistic is a very strong knock against the man known as “I-block-a,” blocks alone do not tell the whole story. As the power forward’s game has shifted towards the three point line on the offensive end, the league has been doing the same. Tasked with covering more perimeter oriented players, Ibaka has naturally had less opportunities for blocks. Therefore, it is more prudent to see how well players actually keep the ball of of the hoop when given the chance. Consider the following graph, featuring 9 of the best shot blockers in the past 4 years:


Using SportsVU stats from nba.com, players are compared using opponent field goal percentage within 5 feet of the rim on a shot that they contest. The axis is reversed, leaving the best rim protectors, also known as “Goberts,” at the top. If you select for only Ibaka, you can see that the decline of the past four years is greatly exaggerated:


Second only to the “Stifle Tower” from 2013 to 2015, only this year has Ibaka seen a precipitous fall in his percentages. There are many factors at play here, the most significant of which being the complete change in teams, systems, and teammates. Rumours have come out in the past week detailing Ibaka’s inability to fit in with the Magic. After all, who can blame him for not trying even 90% on a team going nowhere?

Interestingly, while the eye test may be saying that Ibaka’s calf injury in 2013 robbed him of his agility, it is possible that in 2014 he was once again the top of the class. The same cannot be said for two recent Raptor targets, Al Horford and Paul Millsap:


Having never reached the same defensive levels as Ibaka, these two former Hawks teammates are nevertheless applauded for “consistency” even while having a very similar season to the new Raptor’s “down” season. While there are other factors at play including ability to switch onto smaller players, there is nothing that suggests that they would have been better fits on the current Raptors lineup. Especially considering their ages of 30 and 31, there is no doubt that Ibaka can make at least an equivalent impact with the Raptors, if not greater.

All in all, the Raptor’s acquisition of Ibaka has to be seen as a huge win for the team. Not only do they acquire one of the league’s premier rim protectors, but they also did so at a fraction of the cost due to his perceived decline. I am confident that the Raptor’s gamble will pay off as Serge Ibaka is not just a great player, but an elite one still in his prime.




The NBA adjusts to the Raptors – and the Raptors still won

It is a great time to be a Raptor fan right now. Sure, there’s the defeatist mentality that still looms over like a dark cloud, with two consecutive years of first round exits fresh in everyone’s mind. Whatever optimism that exists can be placed onto the Raptor’s MVP, and indeed a candidate for “second best player after Steph Curry.” That man, of course, being the unstoppable Kyle Lowry. Most notable has been his work with the bench unit of Joseph, Ross, Patterson, and Biyombo.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”und” dir=”ltr”><a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/TerrenceRoss?src=hash”>#TerrenceRoss</a&gt; <br>(h/t <a href=”https://twitter.com/DexterC73″>@DexterC73</a&gt; ) <a href=”https://t.co/ojXTlyOJRr”>pic.twitter.com/ojXTlyOJRr</a></p>&mdash; BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) <a href=”https://twitter.com/bballbreakdown/status/702989589988798465″>February 25, 2016</a></blockquote>

The caveat, as it always is with bench units, is that it is coming against the opposition’s bench as well. The theory is that when the lineups get smaller come playoffs, that advantage will no longer be present. However, if you look at the past 5 games, you can see that the league is now adjusting by playing starters, and the Raptors are still coming out ahead. Let’s take a look at the past 5 games

February 26th, 2015 vs Cavaliers

Cavs Feb 26th

In the franchise-rocking game against the Cavaliers, the Lowry+Bench name was deployed for the second half of the third quarter. If you look up at the Cavalier’s roster during that time, who else do you see but the King himself. Even against Lebron and fellow starter Tristan Thompson, the Raptors held a 4 point advantage during that time span. Also notable is the time spent with Derozan instead of Ross at the beginning of the fourth quarter, when the Raptors were a +12.

The previous two games before that were similar. While the Timberwolves were more traditional by only playing starter Gorgui Dieng and managing to break even during those times, the Knicks adjusted by playing Carmelo. The last game to look at is against Memphis, which points strongly to how opposing coaches are adjusting to the Raptors.

Griz vs Raptors

At the beginning of the Second Quarter, when the Lowry+Bench unit was in, the Raptors were a collective +4. Dave Joeger obviously wasn’t happy with that, as to counteract them in the fourth quarter, he counteracted the move by playing his best player – Mike Conley – the entirety of the time. This isn’t normal behavior for him.

Griz vs Suns

This snapshot, from the most recent game against the Suns, demonstrates the Grizzlie’s preferred approach of resting Conley at the beginning of the 4th quarter. From this point on, there is no use in diminishing the stength of  Kyle Lowry with the bench. They are already proving their mettle against All-Stars.

Analyzing Kyle Lowry’s Defence

Embed from Getty Images

After a red-hot 22-6 start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have seemingly come back to earth with a 2-4 record on their most recent road trip. Granted, with the West Coast swing bringing about Western powerhouses such as the Clippers, Warriors, and Blazers, a winning record was never really in the cards.

Nevertheless, the streak has allowed the Hawks to take away the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The saying goes that to be the best, you have to beat the best, and for the Raptors, getting better starts on defense. That’s no cliche about defense, it is Toronto’s legitimate weakness. Chasing the Mavericks for best offensive rating, while 24th in the league on the other side of the court, (which is WORSE than the tanktastic 76ers) the Raptors have to get back to the defensive ferocity that made head coach Dewayne Casey famous. The biggest culprit: MVP Kyle Lowry.

Shocking, I know, but it’s the truth. Don’t just take it from me, take it from the man himself, courtesy of basketball genius Zach Lowe on Grantland:

“Our defense has slacked off. There are a few things we need to clean up, and we just gotta play harder.”

“Sometimes you overhelp because you want to protect each other. Sometimes you get burned.”

“That’s our scheme. We show. We rotate. It’s what coach teaches us. It’s hard work, but it’s what we do.”

That “scheme” is the Raptor’s hyperactive, rotation heavy defensive strategy. Forgoing the more conservative ICE strategy, outlined by coach Nick in the below video, the raptors rather allow the ball handler into the middle, immediately giving him passing options.

This is a difficult line to walk, as once in the middle, elite ball handlers can get to hoop with merely a half step in front of their defender. With the point guard dominance of the league currently, that defensive burden often falls to Kyle Lowry. With DeRozan out, Lowry has taken up the offensive slack, and his defense has suffered as a result. Take this play for example:

Kyle Lowry stuck on Pick

Lowry gets completely stuck on a simple pick and roll, allowing Stephen Curry the luxury of being able to double clutch before firing off a perfect pass. Again, when elite players see daylight, they can make you pay for it. This is especially dangerous for the Raptors, as their aforementioned scheme on pick and rolls forces tough rotations by the Raptors.

Kyle Lowry D causes rotations

Here, Lowry is barely bumped by Aldridge, and yet falls behind Lillard all the way to the free throw line, where Ross helps down, freeing up his own man. The main action lies elsewhere on the weakside, where Valanciunas rotating over to help on Lillard as well forces James Johnson to cover two players. A simple screen on him by Joel Freeland, and voila, open three pointer.

This entire system, while welcoming rotations, is ultimately undone by the type of deep penetration Lowry gives up on a regular basis. What’s worse is that his dismal play has a trickle down effect in more ways that one. For example, immediately after being plastered by a David Lee pick against Golden State, he found himself guarding Draymond Green while Greivis Vazquez was on Curry. Dewayne Casey would rather put the man they call the slow as Gravy on one of the fastest guards in the NBA. What;s worse is when I attempted to take a look at him guarding another fast guard in Eric Bledsoe.

PJ Tucker

Disappointingly, Lowry was never given the assignment of the opposing guard. For stretches, he wasn’t even on the other point guard, Goran Dragic. No, what you see here is Lowry guarding PJ TUCKER. What happened to the bulldog defender of last year?

The answer to Toronto’s troubles is to get Demar Derozan back ASAP. I realize it may sound obvious that an All-Star guard back would be key, but as I have shown, it is not his production the Raptors miss the most, but rather the responsibility he takes off the other All-Star hopeful (Vote Now!) In terms of defence, while Derozan had shown signs of improvement before his injury, it is the trickle down effect that can have great benefits for the Raptors.