Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker Bringing Defensive Identity to Toronto Raptors

The Toronto Raptors are clearly in win-now mode. With their best player—All-NBA point guard Kyle Lowry—fast approaching 31 years of age, it made sense to become one of the most active teams at the 2017 NBA trade deadline.

On Feb. 14, they sent Terrence Ross and a late first-round pick to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Serge Ibaka. Additionally, right at the death knell of the deadline, Toronto pulled off a last-second deal with the Phoenix Suns, giving up on offseason investment Jared Sullinger and packaging him with two second-round picks for P.J. Tucker.

Both deals garnered universal praise, as the Raptors acquired two defensive specialists to bolster what had been a weakness. Before adding Tucker, Toronto was fifth overall in net rating, thanks in large part to its offense, which ranked fourth. Its defense, however, had been decidedly mediocre, placing 16th in defensive rating.

The early returns are modest, but positive.

The Raptors’ defensive rating has improved from 106 to 104.5 in their last three games (the Tucker era). Yes, it’s a tiny sample size, but it’s notable progress nonetheless. If that were their defensive rating for the season, it would be seventh in the NBA. And as Tucker and Ibaka get more comfortable in head coach Dwane Casey’s system, that number will continue to dwindle, too.

They’re two of the league’s better defensive players, and the numbers (mostly) back it up.

Serge Ibaka By the Numbers

According to NBA Math, just 104 of the players with at least 1,000 minutes have positive defensive points saved. Among them, Ibaka is 79th with a healthy 18.2.

The player he replaced in the starting lineup—Patrick Patterson—is also a solid defender at the 4 with 9.05 defensive points saved. But his left knee has given him a host of problems this season, already forcing him to miss 17 games.  

He’s efficient, but he has a definite ceiling. The former Kentucky big man has positive offensive points added, along with 0.8 VORP. For his career, he averages 7.9 points per game in 24.1 minutes, making him a great bench piece, but merely an average starter.

Ibaka is unquestionably an upgrade defensively. The veteran power forward boasts 2.0 defensive win shares (50th overall), while Patterson is 168th with half his replacement’s total. He’s also posted a higher total rebound rate (12.2 percent to 10.9), block rate (4.2 percent to 1.3) and defensive box plus/minus (0.5 to 0.4).

Not surprisingly, Ibaka’s block rate is 25th in the NBA among players with at least 30 games played. Shot-blocking is where he made his name early in his career, and he remains adept at it to this day.

Ibaka gives Toronto an explosive option at the 4. And after a season of trotting out a hobbled Patterson or desperately trying rookies Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl at the position, its starting rotation will now have a new dynamic that was not possible before.

P.J. Tucker By the Numbers

According to most metrics, Tucker’s individual defensive isn’t quite on Ibaka’s level.

He’s 150th in defensive win shares, behind guys like Nik Stauskas and C.J. Miles. His defensive box plus/minus is merely 75th overall at 1.6.

Where he does shine (aside from word of mouth, at least), is defensive points saved, which accounts for his per-minute efficiency and the many minutes he shoulders. Via NBA Math, Tucker has saved 56.31 points—a borderline-elite clip that places him at No. 36 overall.

It’s so impressive, in fact, that despite serving as an offensive liability (minus-21.12 offensive points added), the veteran wing player still boasts 35.19 total points added. Considering anything higher than zero means you’re an above-average player, his clip is almost stunningly high.

His isolation defense, in particular, is a game-changer. Throughout his time with the Suns, he allowed just 0.71 points per possession in isolation, which left him in the 81.5 percentile. And in just his third outing for the Raptors, Tucker was already guarding one of the NBA’s better one-on-one scorers in Carmelo Anthony with the outcome hanging in the balance.

That is just a masterful display of how to be a pest.

Tucker’s strength prevented Anthony from backing him down, and his walloping (and legal) reach-ins kept the scoring machine off-balance. Anthony even lost the ball momentarily before recovering and getting off a decent look, which shows just how hard it is to stop a top-level scorer. But Tucker did more than enough to frustrate his matchup and force a vital miss.

Even though Anthony recovered that poke-away, the newest Raptor has a 2.6 percent steal rate, which is 24th best in the league among those with at least 30 appearances.

He’s treacherous to get by, instinctive in shutting down passing lanes and vicious when an opposing big man puts the ball on the floor.

Tucker must be an absolute nuisance to play against, and that’s meant in the most complimentary way possible.

Is Toronto’s Fortune Changing?

I’d be far more confident in proclaiming the Raptors a worthy adversary for the Cleveland Cavaliers had it not been for the recent news surrounding their most important player.

Lowry is set to undergo wrist surgery that will keep him out at least a month. However, Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reported Toronto is hopeful he’ll be back before the postseason, so he has a chance to regain his fitness before the games count even more. The news wasn’t all bad.

With a healthy Lowry, DeMar DeRozan maintaining his high-level play and the new additions, the Raptors have a chance of dethroning LeBron James and the Cavs. It’s hard to pick anyone against the reigning champs, but Toronto, at the very least, helped its cause with aggression at the deadline.

Ibaka and Tucker change opposing coaches’ game-plans with their defensive tenacity. The former can guard Kevin Love, while the latter spends long stretches on James. And it also has DeMarre Carroll, another plus defender who could potentially find the form he maintained during his Atlanta Hawks days, in the mix.

It’s also comforting that over the last three games, the three-man lineup of Ibaka, Tucker and DeRozan has one of the NBA’s better net ratings. Outscoring the opposition by 26 points per 100 possessions, it ranks No. 16 overall among lineups that have also appeared in each of the past three contests.

More time for that trio to gel, plus Lowry’s return, will make the playoffs even more intriguing. Last year, with Toronto and Cleveland deadlocked at two games apiece in the Eastern Conference Finals, James said he didn’t consider Game 5 an adverse situation.

If the same teams find themselves in those exact circumstances this season, maybe the best player in basketball will feel slightly more nervous.

Follow Frank on Twitter @frankurbina_.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math or and are accurate heading into games on Feb. 28.