Toronto Raptors

Serge Ibaka is in the midst of a career year... or is he?

Serge Ibaka is averaging a career-high 16.0 PPG this season.
Serge Ibaka is averaging a career-high 16.0 PPG this season. (Getty Images)

Serge Ibaka is surging.

It's the middle of January and the Cameroonian centre has just put the finishing touches on yet another monster performance.

Although the Raptors came up one point short after blowing a big fourth-quarter lead to DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs, it certainly couldn't be pinned on the shoulders of Ibaka who finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds while grossly outplaying LaMarcus Aldridge. Continuing to fill in for the injured Marc Gasol, Ibaka finished a team-best +13 in his 32 minutes, punishing the Spurs inside and outside.

That game was Ibaka's eighth straight double-double, breaking a tie for the longest such streak of his career over a span in which he racked up 19.1 points and 11.5 rebounds per game while draining 48 percent of his shots from beyond the 3-point line. His sterling play - on the eve of Gasol's return - led me to write that he had become the most underappreciated player in the entire league.

The statistical support certainly held up.

He had just rattled off a two-week stretch during which the only player scoring more, rebounding more AND shooting better from the field was none other than Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP and heavy favourite to win it yet again.

While nobody expected that torrid stretch to hold up, Ibaka continued to put up eye-popping numbers that added up to a career-high 16.0 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, the latter of which stands as the second-best of his career.

In the wake of writing that glowing assessment on Ibaka's strong stretch, I received a few DMs from Raptor fans cautioning against piling on too much praise. If Ibaka was so good then why was the team so much worse with him on the floor?

I honestly hadn't thought to check.

MORE: Where to the Raptors rank among NBA title contenders?

Watching the Raptors night in and night out, I became mesmerized by Ibaka's ability to prolifically fill it up on a team that sometimes lacked the proverbial punch.

But in throwing caution to the wind, I ignored what should have been a red herring.

Up until that point in the season, the Raptors were an astonishing 11.0 points per 100 possessions worse whenever he was on the floor, the single worst mark of any of the nine players which at that point played at least 500 minutes. Even if you remove the 10-game stretch he missed in November during which the defending champs romped to an 8-2 record while pummeling lesser opponents, they were still 9.0 points per 100 possessions worse whenever he was on the floor.

It holds up for the entirety of the season as well as Ibaka's on/off splits remain the worst of any player in the rotation (or not depending on how you'd like to classify Patrick McCaw whose extended burn should leave scholars confused from now until the end of time).

Taken without context, on/off numbers can be tricky as they lend themselves to plenty of noise. There are ALWAYS a host of confounding variables. Any number-crunching data geek (I'm referring to myself here) who leans on numbers understands the pitfalls of giving too much weight to any one piece of data. And yet a closer look reveals an ugly truth that it's not simply a byproduct of teammates.


Take for instance the lineup of Ibaka alongside Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. In 197 minutes - the most played by any Ibaka lineup this season - they've been outscored by 5.5 points per 100 possessions. Swap in Gasol for Ibaka and that rating soars all of the way to plus 11.7.

Of the three most common Ibaka lineups (and the only ones to play more than 50 minutes together), none are a net positive.

Most Common Ibaka Lineups
Other Four Players Net Rating Minutes
Lowry-VanVleet-Anunoby-Siakam -5.5 197
Lowry-VanVleet-McCaw-Anunoby -8.7 135
Lowry-Powell-Anunoby-Siakam 0.0 117

It's all about the bottom line and the bottom line is that Ibaka's prolific numbers haven't made the Raptors any better.

It presents an interesting quandary moving forward not only down in Orlando but looking off into the future as well.

Given Ibaka's routinely strong play in last year's playoffs, it's hard to imagine any scenario in which his role diminishes come playoff time. I'm not even advocating that it should as he's certainly earned every right to log heavy minutes. But Gasol certainly isn't growing roots on the bench either assuming good health which means there isn't much opportunity - short of an even more ludicrous idea of reducing Siakam's workload - for Nurse to expand upon some intriguing small ball looks with either Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Anunoby sliding up, looks like that may not result in 20-10 All-Star level production but that might help the Raptors once again navigate a winnable Eastern Conference.

Beyond Orlando, there's the case of Ibaka's impending free agency.

MORE: Potential free agent destinations for Ibaka

At 30, Ibaka is still young enough to command one more big payday and he's again well within his rights to earn every penny on the heels of a "career year" during which he's proven capable of filling up the stat sheet. Do the Raptors really want to pony up again for a player that hasn't really made them any better this season? Even if the dollar figures don't add up to the hefty $23.2M he earned this season in the final year of his deal, he'll certainly command a fairly big number on the open market that could make Masai Ujiri think long and hard about matching or exceeding.

With a declining block rate on the defensive end and a potentially unsustainable outlier of a year from the outside, there are legitimate concerns that Ibaka's seemingly career-high contributions may be more of a mirage than anything indicative of a prolonged, productive future.

In both the short and long term, that should give Raptors fans plenty to ponder.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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