Earlier this week, I looked at free agent destinations for Fred VanVleet should he decide to leave the Toronto Raptors as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason.
Today, it's Serge Ibaka's turn to take the spotlight.
An unrestricted free agent himself, it's going to be fascinating to see what Ibaka decides to do following this season. On one hand, he's putting the finishing touches on one of the best seasons of his career. He's not the defender he used to be, but Ibaka has turned himself into one of the league's best scorers at his position, someone who can finish strong at the rim and stretch the floor out to the 3-point line. Even though he's already indicated that he'd like to stay in Toronto, there's a chance that he'll be looking to parlay this season into the type of payday the Raptors can't afford.
On the other hand, Ibaka will turn 31 later this year. As good as he's been this season, players at his position tend not to age particularly well, so teams might be hesitant to offer him a long-term contract, especially after what happened the last time he signed a long-term contract.
That's why it's much harder to come up with free agent destinations for Ibaka than for VanVleet - not only is it impossible to know whether he'll be looking to cash in or put himself in the best position to contribute to a team that has a chance of winning it all, it remains to be seen how much of a market there is for him or any of the non-Tier 1 free agents.
Even so, there are a few teams other than the Raptors that come to mind for me as possibilities for Ibaka this offseason, starting with the...
New Orleans Pelicans
Everything the Pelicans do moving forward should be viewed through the lens of how it impacts Zion Williamson.
So how would signing Ibaka impact Williamson?
First things first, Ibaka would provide important spacing. It's a little concerning that Ibaka shot only 29.0 percent from 3-point range in 2018-19, but he's up to a career-best 39.8 percent this season on even greater volume. Assuming he can continue to stretch the floor out to the 3-point line at even an above average rate, his presence would open up the paint for Williamson without sacrificing size.
Secondly, Ibaka would be able to take some pressure off of Williamson as a scorer. In addition to being a capable shooter, Ibaka is one of the league's best rollers and cutters. The Pelicans would be able to run pick-and-rolls with him as the roller and either Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram as the ball handler while Williamson camps out in the dunker spot. Alternatively, Ibaka could be the one camping out in the dunker spot when Williamson is the one setting screens for Holiday and Ingram. Either way, they wouldn't step on each other's toes.
Finally, Ibaka can guard centres. Not quite at the same level as Marc Gasol or Derrick Favors, both of whom will be unrestricted free agents this offseason, but Ibaka would provide more of a scoring punch than those two while still being able to defend the opposing team's biggest player, allowing Williamson to pick and choose his matchups on defence.
The one problem the Pelicans face is they might not have a lot of money to spend in the offseason. They only have $83.2 million committed to their roster for next season right now, but that's not taking into account the max-level contract Ingram is expected to sign as a restricted free agent. Add that to the equation plus a lower salary cap, and it limits how much New Orleans can offer someone like Ibaka.
New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets
I figured I'd group the Knicks and Hornets together. Why? They're two teams that are projected to have cap space this offseason, are thin at centre (more on that in a second) and don't appear as though they'll be competing for a championship anytime soon.
The draw for Ibaka would be the money. Who knows if either the Knicks or Hornets would be willing to sign Ibaka to a long-term contract, but it wouldn't be a complete shock to me if they were to sign him to a lucrative one or two-year contract to lure him away from Toronto and pair their young guards - RJ Barrett on the Knicks, Devonte' Graham and Terry Rozier on the Hornets - with a veteran big who can shoot 3s, roll to the basket and doesn't need the ball in his hands.
The kicker is the Knicks make absolutely no sense if they intend on bringing back Bobby Portis and Taj Gibson, both of whom have a team option in their contracts for next season, because it would eat away at the cap space they'd need to sign Ibaka and make playing time at his position hard to come by.
The Hornets aren't as restricted. Cody Zeller is still under contract for one more season, but Bismack Biyombo and Willy Hernangómez are in the final years of their contracts, opening up room in Charlotte's frontcourt for Ibaka.
This sort of depends on what happens with Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk.
Leonard is in the final year of his contract, but there was a report earlier in the season that the coaching staff is hoping the Heat re-sign him in the offseason. There's a world in which Olynyk is wearing a different uniform next season, but it hinges on him turning down a $12.2 million player option that you'd think he's picking up given how little we know about how the coronavirus pandemic will impact the salary cap next season and beyond.
If they both return, there's probably not room for Ibaka on this roster. But if one of them leaves, Ibaka makes sense for the Heat.
It helps that Ibaka has been on Miami's radar before. Granted, a lot has changed since the Heat were last rumoured to be interested in him, but he'd slide in nicely alongside the franchise's two best players in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Ibaka is a good enough shooter for him and Adebayo to play in the frontcourt together, his ability to play centre means the Heat could have one of him and Adebayo on the court at all times and he'd make for a natural fit with Butler on offence, with both of them generating the bulk of their scoring in pick-and-rolls.
The Heat probably won't be in the business of offering Ibaka a long-term contract because they reportedly have their eyes set on the summer of 2021 when the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo and Jrue Holiday could become free agents. But if Ibaka is willing to sign a one-year deal or two-year deal, either one that is front-loaded or at a discount, the Heat have a lot of appeal.
Golden State Warriors
Ibaka joining the Warriors is admittedly a long shot. The combination of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green alone will cost the Warriors - gulp - $130.2 million next season. So for this to even be an option, Ibaka would have to take a massive pay cut.
And yet, if we're going to talk about the possibility of Ibaka signing somewhere at a discount, it feels wrong to ignore the Warriors, especially considering they might be on the market for a centre in the offseason. Green can play centre, but he's a part-time centre, not a full-time one. That leaves Kevon Looney, who appeared in only 20 games this season because of a hip injury that required surgery, and Marquese Chriss, who has had his ups and downs since being selected with the No. 8 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, as their only centres currently under contract for next season.
The Warriors could use their 2020 NBA Draft pick to address their lack of depth at centre, of course. It just depends on how high they are on James Wiseman, Onyeka Okongwu or Obi Toppin, three bigs projected to go in the lottery. If they elect to go with a wing instead, I can only assume they'd make signing a centre in free agency a priority, making Ibaka an option.
Again, Ibaka could sign for a lot more money elsewhere, but if he's looking for another chance at winning a title, he could do much worse than Golden State. Curry, Thompson and Green have proven to be a winning formula, and Ibaka would complement the three of them well on both ends of the court as a shooter, finisher and solid defender.
The sweetener? Ibaka would likely start at centre for the Warriors. Maybe being the starting centre on a team that would have a shot at winning it all would make up for the whole having-to-take-a-massive-pay-cut thing.
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