Throughout the offseason, Pick and Popovich will rank the top 50 players in the NBA. To be clear, these are 50 best players for the 2016-17 season, regardless of team situation, past performance or future potential. If you’re trying to win a championship in 2016-17, these are the 50 players you’d want most.
Why He’s Great: Serge Ibaka is a unicorn. I know, I know, we use that word too often. Kristaps Porzingis might one day become a unicorn. Ben Simmons is going to be an ultra super mega unicorn. But Serge Ibaka, right now, is a unicorn. He is the only big man in the NBA that protects the rim at an extraordinarily high level and shoot three’s at an above-average level.
Those are the two most valuable traits any player can have on either side of the ball at this point in NBA history, and Ibaka has them both. He’s the only one. DeMarcus Cousins may try his darndest to make three’s, but until he does so at even a league-average rate, Ibaka is our only unicorn.
He has other valuable skills. He’s a plus-rebounder who can switch at least onto slower forwards. His touch around the basket is underrated. He can even pass a bit if he has the ball in the middle of the court (a rarity in Oklahoma City that may or may not flip in Orlando). But make no mistake, Ibaka’s value is tied into two very rare skills: true rim protection and above-average three-point shooting.
Why He’s Below No. 47 (Nicolas Batum): Batum can’t protect the rim like Ibaka, but his overall defensive value isn’t far behind. He’s a better offensive player by just about any measure. And he’s a better teammate.
That’s something we really have to keep in mind with Ibaka now. He couldn’t accept being a role player. He demanded more touches and would’ve walked as a free agent to get them. There’s nothing wrong with that from a young player on a bad team, but for Ibaka to risk the delicate balance of a contender on his own selfish desires when he would’ve gotten a max contract anyway is damning. It’s a very real splotch on his resume, especially compared to Batum, who completely embraces his job as a role player.
And then there’s his age, a question we suddenly have to ask with players from certain countries after the Thon Maker fiasco. Ibaka is listed at 26 and his value has always been treated as such. But what if he’s 28? What if he’s 30? He instantly becomes far less interesting because rather than growing into his prime he’s headed out of it. It’s sadly possible that Ibaka has already peaked and has nowhere to go but down.
Finally, Ibaka is a very low upside player. He had only four games last season above 20 points. He’s going to give you the same workmanlike 16 points every night. That’s fine, it’s obviously useful, but there’s something to be said for a player who’s at least capable of exploding for 40.