Next up in our 2021-2022 Clippers player season preview series is veteran big man Serge Ibaka.
Years in NBA: 12
Key Stats: 41 games, 11.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 blocks, on 51.0/33.9/81.1 shooting splits
Contract Status: Serge Ibaka signed a 2-year, $19M contract with the Clippers during the 2020 free agency period, which included a player option for the second year. He picked up his $9.7M option this summer, opting into the final year of his deal.
I’ve held steady on my belief that the main reason many of us often felt so “meh” with Serge last season was because he was starting and playing more minutes than Zu, who was clearly the more impactful player of the two. It only validated our frustrations once Zu took over the starting center spot following Serge’s injury, and the Clippers looked much better, especially defensively. However, that doesn’t mean that Serge was a bad player last year. In fact, should Serge be relegated to Zu’s backup (expected) playing 15-20 minutes a night, even the decreased production we got from him last season would make him one of the better second-unit bigs in the league — something we initially anticipated when he was signed.
Now, there’s obviously room for improvement heading into year two with the team. I expect a fully healthy, or at least a more healthy, Ibaka will shoot the ball better from deep. His 33.9 percent last year marked his lowest since leaving Oklahoma City in 2017. Yet, there’s no telling when exactly we’ll get to see Serge on the floor during game nights, as Lawrence Frank recently mentioned during media availability how the 12-year center would be limited to non-contact participation during training camp as he works his way back following the procedure that Ibaka had on his back.
Once upon a time, Serge Ibaka was the premier shot-blocker in the NBA. He led the league in blocked shots across the last decade and is second amongst all active players in career blocks. His numbers have declined in that category over recent years, but part of the reason for the decline in his averages per game is due to the way that the game has changed over the years, which would be the emphasis on jump shooting. Still, while he’s not the All-NBA Defensive player he used to be, Serge is still good at taking shots out of the air and erasing shots at the rim.
Shifting to the offensive end, Serge has developed a steady dribble-drive that stems from the threat he poses as an outside shooter — his drive-and-kick game often created good shots for his teammates last season. No, he’s not isolating his way from the perimeter to the paint, but his ability to utilize pump-fakes and attack close-outs was big for the Clippers’ offense. As his three-point percentage creeps back up near his 36 percent career average, more defenders will feel inclined to close hard more frequently, creating opportunities for Serge to “paint and spray.”
The Clippers’ near bottom-of-the-league pace hindered Serge’s frequency in shooting the trail three. Off the top of my head, I can’t imagine any times a Clipper pushed the ball in transition, got downhill, and flipped it back to Ibaka for a straightaway three from the top on the arc. This specific sequence was seen more regularly in Toronto with Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and Fred Van Vleet setting up Serge as he trailed the play, which would be wise for the Clippers to emphasize now that they have younger legs and athleticism to push.
Let’s all hope and pray that the Serge Ibaka post-isos are dead and gone. His inability to back his defender down and move him closer to the rim caused a ton of nasty-looking attempts that rarely found the bottom of the rim. Some of said attempts led to Ibaka’s mere 41.0 shooting percentage on non-restricted area shots in the paint, which is a career-low and a number that has rapidly decreased over the past four years. Much of the decline has to do with age and mileage. Last season, in particular, Serge’s elevation and effectiveness in the paint surely was impacted by the back injury that hampered him throughout the season. Combine that with the number of miles that his legs have endured over the course of 12 NBA seasons, and you get the poor percentage that marked Serge’s 2020 season.
Speaking of legs, the former defensive ace looked pretty slow laterally last season. It wasn’t notably awful or anything like that, but Ibaka had a hard time closing out and guarding the live dribble. It was most evident by how the Clippers’ staff chose to use him as a pick-and-roll defender. Ibaka often sat in a drop to prevent having to get too far away from the paint. The drop allowed for Serge to stay and contest shots at the rim, where he’s still perfectly fine, but I think most of the idea behind the scheme was to compensate for Serge’s decline in footspeed. Most of his efforts defending ball-handlers resulted in blow-by’s when stepping up too close and otherwise conceded jump shots in attempts not to get dribbled past.
Serge is a well-respected and highly-regarded NBA veteran. Despite the up-and-down 2020/21 season in which he dealt with injuries, he isn’t too far removed from a season that led him to become one of 2020s prized free agents. Hopefully, Serge’s #VIBEZ remains immaculate, and that his injuries are limited this upcoming season. That way, he can be integrated into the fold as a change-of-pace, true center that gives the Clippers a dimension that they often lacked last season.