Charging Forward: How Nerlens Noel, Serge Ibaka Change Their New Teams
by 6 March 2017, 10:00 AM
Nerlens Noel and Serge Ibaka are on new teams; here’s what their skill sets bring to the Dallas Mavericks and Toronto Raptors.
With the fanfare of the 2017 trade deadline now over, let’s take a moment to scrutinize two of the bigger, but not biggest, trades from this year’s F5 season — Nerlens Noel to the Dallas Mavericks, and Serge Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors. Both are premier bigs sent to very different situations.
The Dallas Mavericks are preparing for the future and have long sought an elite big man (they’ve had a few issues with free agent centers before…). They gave Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut (who is now, hilariously, signing with Cleveland Cavaliers), and a 2017 top-18 protected first-round draft pick to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Nerlens Noel. If the Dallas Mavericks fall anywhere from one to 18 on the draft board they keep the pick, and the 76ers instead get two Mavericks second-round picks, one in 2017 and one in 2018.
The 76ers have been trying to unclog their logjam of bigs for an eternity, with much trade speculation surrounding their other young center, Jahlil Okafor. Instead, Noel was traded and most, if not all, would say this trade falls pretty far in the Mavericks’ favor. The Mavs get a potential long-term starter for a young wing who played less than 15 minutes a game, an expensive veteran center who has played in half their games, and what will likely become two second-round picks. Not a bad haul.
The one caveat is that Noel is set to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season. The 76ers must have have been worried about having to match the offers other teams would have lobbed at Noel. So instead, they flipped him for whatever they could. The Mavs seem to view Noel as a long-term piece, however.
On the other hand, the Toronto Raptors are looking to contend now and are bolstering their roster in the expectations of a rematch with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. They sent Terrence Ross and a 2017 first-round pick to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Ibaka.
The move cut short Ibaka’s first season with the Magic and his first season off of the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he reached the Finals playing alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in 2012. The Magic had traded for Ibaka before the 2016 draft but obviously felt the need to move on from him; it may have been due to him being a free agent by this summer and to the failure of the ‘Aaron Gordon at the three spot’ experiment.
Both players have offered their new teams different skill sets and both plug a hole previously left empty. Let’s see how the two fit their new teams’ needs.
Noel in many ways fits the mold for the ideal modern big. While there are few centers in the league who can do it all—pass, shoot, and defend the rim—Noel does the two things every team wants their centers not named Gasol, Jokic, or Porzingis to do: he’s a defensive savant and he can roll hard to the rim.
By almost every metric, advanced or not, Noel is a defensive monster. In his young career he’s already averaging 1.7 steals and 1.6 blocks per game on only 28.3 minutes; that’s 2.2 steals and 2.0 blocks per 36 minutes. The only other player I could find who averaged two steals and blocks per 36 for the first five years of their career was some guy named Kim Hughes (no disrespect) who played around 20 minutes a game in the 1970s; not even Hakeem Olajuwon nor David Robinson could quite reach those numbers. For a more contemporary comparison, perennial defensive player of the year candidate Draymond Green is averaging 2.3 steals and 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes this year.
2014-2015 was Noel’s rookie year and was a year before the 76ers’ problems at center had fully manifested. At the time, the 76ers had the third-worst record in the league at 18-64, yet they had the 13th best defense by defensive rating, led by Noel, already their best defender. That year, he was in the top 10 in defensive win shares, defensive rating, and defensive box plus/minus. He was a top-six rim protector by opponent FG% at the rim and was also in the top 15 by Nylon Calculus’ rim protection stats, namely adjusted points saved at the rim per 36 minutes (ahead of one of the GOAT paint defenders Tim Duncan).
Noel is long, quick, and athletic, attributes necessary in a big when defending against pick and roll situations. This is becoming more and more paramount as teams play aggressive switching defenses, as showcased in the 2016 Finals, and as the pick and roll becomes the go-to option for modern offenses. Chris Bosh in the Heatles era Miami Heat team showed us how an agile big could stunt the ball handler in a pick and roll, giving his teammates time to work around the screen and regain position, and then quickly recover to defend the rolling big man. Noel has the ability to do the same.
Watch him cut off the ball handler, realize he’s left a gaping hole for a pocket pass to the roller, and rush back to block what Al Horford of the Boston Celtics thought would be an easy layup.
While the Mavs are currently a mediocre defensive team—16th out of 30 teams—they could still use Noel’s defensive prowess, especially around the rim. Teams shoot a league-high 57.8% at the rim against the Mavs and they average the lowest blocks per game in the league.
The Mavs recently hinted that they saw Noel as becoming a Tyson Chandler-type player. But the likeness doesn’t only hold true in terms of their defensive talents (Chandler was a Defensive Player of the Year with the Mavs in 2011-2012), but with their offensive skillset, too.
Chandler was never touted for his offensive abilities when he entered the league. But he did increase his scoring from 7.6 points per game to 10.2 on the New Orleans Hornets, and he did so in a very crucial manner—with Chris Paul he formed an elite pick and roll duo, throwing down a number of vicious lobs in his short tenure there. It was with Paul that he learned the inconspicuously intricate art of screening and rolling with proper timing and ambition.
Now, a player with no discernible offensive skills can, through their height, athleticism, and timing become an important piece of an offense; a guy who can’t shoot can now space the floor vertically. Toss the ball up and they go get it. It’s how players like DeAndre Jordan have come to eviscerate players through sheer force of dunk.
This is where Noel comes in for the Mavs. The Mavs are last in the league when it comes to points in the paint and Noel is a potent finisher. He’s becoming increasingly skilled as a roll man; in 2015-2016 he was in the 34th percentile of roll man scoring efficiency and in 2016-2017 he’s in the 70th percentile. Like Chandler, he’s long and athletic enough to finish lobs thrown from all sorts of angles.
The Mavs are also second to last in terms of pace. Part of that may be due to playing aging Dallas legend Dirk Nowitzki more at the center position; he’s played 57% of his minutes at center this year compared to 33% last year. Noel gives them a gazelle of a center who’s capable of running hard and finishing strong in transition.
Despite being only 27 years old, Ibaka already feels like a mainstay veteran. He’s spent time on proven teams, has already been to the NBA Finals, and has played alongside two superstars in Durant and Westbrook (if we count Harden, at the time, that’s three! Three superstars!). For a team that’s looking to push deeper into the playoffs, especially with two of their own stars in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, a veteran who’s been there and done that can be invaluable—he seems to have already made a positive impact in the team’s culture.
Ibaka was, for the majority of his career, one of the league’s finest shot blockers. With Oklahoma City, he led the league twice in blocks per game by becoming a feared weakside/help defender. It was a common visual in Thunder games: a player would roll past their man towards the rim expecting a clean finish and Ibaka would flash from across the lane for an emphatic block. It was in this fashion he garnered the nickname ‘Iblocka.’
Since then, though, he has played in the paint less, a natural habit for someone playing with two aggressive superstars, and his block numbers have declined somewhat, leading some to believe his athleticism has declined. But while Ibaka is still a formidable rim protector, the Raptors aren’t desperate for his defensive capabilities alone; they also need him for his shooting.
Ibaka, for the first five years of his career, averaged 0.3 three-point attempts on 36.6% shooting. Since then he’s averaged 3.1 attempts per game at the same percentage; six games in with the Raps and his 4.8 attempts on 44.8% makes him the team’s next best three-point shooter after Lowry. His time playing with Durant and Westbrook forced him to learn how to space the floor better, giving the pair the room they needed to operate in the paint. It was a timely development, now that big man shooting is in vogue en masse.
Lowry and DeRozan are similar in ways to that old Thunder duo. The Raps offense lives, and dies, off of their actions. It’s worked so far this year, as the Raps had, for a short time, the best offensive rating in league history (they’re now fourth for this season) despite playing at the 22nd slowest pace. They’ve done this by getting to the free throw line, committing few turnovers, and, inexplicably, by making the fewest passes per game of any team this year, according to Neil Greenberg. Instead of being pass-crazy, the Raps rely on getting Lowry and DeRozan in pick and rolls and running around screens.
Like the Spurs, the Raps are making a living off of the antiquated strategies of a supposedly bygone era. They thrive taking few threes and run at a patient, methodical pace. Despite their offbeat offensive efficacy, the Raps are the sixth worst team in catch and shoot points per game. Plus, they just traded away their next best shooter, after Lowry, in Terrence Ross.
That’s right where Ibaka can help. He’s averaging 6.8 catch-and-shoot points per game this year on 42.1% shooting. For comparison Stephen Curry is at 6.7 on 45.8% shooting. He’s a capable shooter both from the midrange and from the three-point line, making him a potentially deadly pick-and-pop partner for either of the Raptors’ star guards.
His versatility, however, may be the trait that alters a playoff series’ outcome. At 6’10, Ibaka is capable of playing both power forward, his natural position, and center. His shooting allows him to play a stretch four (shooting power forward) role on offense and still make use of his weakside and help defense. But his ability to protect the rim has allowed him to play center in small ball lineups for certain stretches, such as in the 2016 playoffs and now, six games in with the Raps.
This is perfect for the Raptors, as they already have a power forward and center who can play alongside him. Ibaka’s shooting could complement their starting center, Jonas Valančiūnas, who has a tendency to stick to the paint and lies somewhere between Draymond Green and Jahlil Okafor in terms of defense (i.e. average). But Ibaka could also be paired in faster, small ball lineups as a five with Patrick Patterson, another versatile big, at the four spot.
In addition, he seems competent at handling switches, which is becoming more and more of a priority. Many of the teams in the 2016 playoffs utilized it, mostly as an attempt at stifling the Golden State Warriors or Cleveland Cavaliers offense, and Ibaka has shown himself to be one of the better bigs at containing a quicker guard when switched onto him.
Both Noel and Ibaka get a chance at a fresh, new start after non-ideal situations. Noel on the 76ers, after his rookie year, rarely got the playing time he felt he deserved; when he did it was often at power forward next to Jahlil Okafor and not at his natural position of center. He gets a shot at being an important piece of a rebuilding team for the years to come.
Ibaka was, I imagine, probably not too fond of being on a Magic team that has the fourth worst record in the league after having spent the last few years on very successful Thunder teams. He gets a chance to help a budding Raptors team push deeper into the playoffs. From defensive savvy to outside shooting, both have the talents to change, for the better, each of their teams moving forward.
All stats courtesy of stats.nba.com and basketball-reference.com
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