Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas are not a good front court pairing. At its best, it’s a break-even duo that doesn’t hemorrhage double-digit first quarter deficits. When things go poorly for the two, the Wizards get out to 18-6 starts.
In theory, Ibaka joining forces with Valanciunas is a sound concept. A offensive-minded centre who’s iffy on defense next to a shot-blocking, three-point jacking power forward seems like a balanced bit of big-man yin and yang. Except the latter isn’t really a power forward anymore, and the former is consistently the Raptors’ least effective defensive big man.
Washington exposed all of the cracks in the Raptors’ starting front court on Sunday night. Their modern power forward options and totally-expectedly terrifying Bradley Beal-run pick-and-rolls carved up Ibaka and Valanciunas from the games earliest moments down to JV’s merciful sixth foul as the game slipped away from Toronto. To tell the story of the Raptors’ ill-fitting four/five combo’s struggles, here are five screenshots pulled from Sunday’s 107-96 loss.
Remember Ben Revere — the Juan Pierre knock-off who played for the Blue Jays during their magical 2015 run? Do you recall the bizarre routes he took to fly balls sent his way in left field? This was Jonas’ tribute to those misadventures:
How, you ask, did Valanciunas end up six feet behind his man, Marcin Gortat, giving him a free run to the basket off of a solitary Bradley Beal pass? It was the same phenomenon as takes place when a gushy high school couple, hands clasped, approaches a divided mall doorway and must release each other’s palms for a few seconds lest they play Red Rover the door frame. Except in this instance, Markieff Morris’ “screen” presented less resistance than a stationary beam, and the Valanciunas-Gortat separation was wholly unnecessary.
Ibaka is relatively blameless in this case. Consider this an illustration of Valanciunas’ broader-scale defensive woes. But sure, Ibaka has his own part to play in the struggles of Toronto’s starting front court.
Ibaka’s greatest foible is his positional fit more than it is abjectly poor defensive ability. Ibaka is a centre now. He probably has been for a few seasons. And his strengths don’t mesh with the types of less-than-good-at-defense centres he’s been paired with over the last few years. He and Enes Kanter surrendered a 109.4 defensive rating in 536 minutes together in OKC two seasons ago — contrast that with the 98.4 points Ibaka and Steven Adams allowed per 100 possessions as a twosome that year. In 1000-plus minutes of court time with Nikola Vucevic and Ibaka up front, the Magic coughed up 105.4 points/100 and a -2.9 NET rating.
His numbers with Valanciunas have been ugly, too. They’ve been the team’s worst defensive high-usage four/five pairing since they were smushed together last February. Combined foot-speed is one reason why. The Great William Lou documented the Raptors’ more pronounced commitment to switching on defense in this week’s Raptors Weekly blog. JV and Ibaka don’t adhere to this philosophy — at least not very well. Late last season, the crunch time front court of Ibaka and P.J. Tucker found great success in switching. Ibaka and Valanciunas are incapable of such synergy.
In the top frame, you can see Ibaka calling out for the switch as Gortat moves to hand it off to Morris. After a Morris pump-fake and a JV lunge, you have frame no. 2. The result of this play was actually the exact best-case scenario you might have in mind for this pairing — Serge Ibaka blocked Morris at the rim, sufficiently covering for Valanciunas’ gaffe. But even when the pairing works, it doesn’t. This isn’t a sequence you want to see played on repeat. Not every encounter between a four who’s just blown by JV will end in a Serge block — sometimes it’ll be a foul, or a kick-out to a shooter, or a contested lay-up, or a poster dunk. Ibaka is a good rim protector, not quite the elite shot-swatting terror he was five years ago. Asking him to atone for his teammate’s mistakes on the regular won’t always have such a positive outcome. If Washington had run that play last March, Morris is probably futilely dribbling into Tucker’s chest and dishing it off elsewhere.
None of this is to say that Ibaka would have been able to hang had the Raptors’ played the Gortat-Morris action straight-up. While he’d probably beat Jonas in a lateral quickness derby, Ibaka’s agility has definitely waned. Our next bit of photo evidence shows Ibaka testing out his best JV impression not two minutes later:
For sobering comparison’s sake, here’s how Pascal Siakam and Lucas Nogueira worked in concert against a different Morris drive:
When paired with a more spry power forward, Ibaka can hang near the rim where he is most effective. Had he been given the chance to play as a pure centre instead of being miscast as a four for the last three years, the drop-off in his block totals might not look quite so precipitous.
It’s especially damaging when Ibaka mans the four against teams that play wings as power forwards with no respite. Morris is a tough check for Ibaka. Kelly Oubre Jr. is an unfair one.
Admittedly, this is probably an unfair example considering this was a transition opportunity. But it does still express the point that with two should-be centres on the court, stretchy forwards are going to get loose for wide open treys. Siakam, Jakob Poeltl and OG Anunoby are all more sensible partners for Ibaka or Valanciunas in the front court; their speediness better allows for the offense-defense harmony it was assumed Ibaka and JV might find together.
Dwane Casey’s conundrum is that the fix isn’t as easy as never playing his two most expensive bigs together again. Much like a front court partnership, managing a rotation over the course of 82 games is about balance and compromise. Ibaka and Valanciunas make close to $40 million combined this year. Relegating one to reserve duty could whack one mole while another chemistry-threatening one pops up somewhere else. It would be lovely to see Ibaka play exclusively as a five — but there also happens to be two talented, young centres on the roster, both of whom have earned minutes with their play in the first month. Playing Jonas with second units injects an antithetical presence to lineups that typically feast on running and switching opponents into submission.
For now, Raptors fans should still expect to see Ibaka-Valanciunas minutes nightly. Those stretches may be toilsome. You may want to throw things at your TV. With no easy solutions, the best hope is that Casey will tactfully use the rest of his bigs to find front court symmetry in the minutes that matter most.
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