TORONTO – Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol?
That’s the decision Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has been wrestling with since the team acquired the veteran Gasol from Memphis five weeks ago, and one he’s had to make before each game.
The two centres have formed a platoon at the position, with Gasol starting five games since the all-star break and Ibaka starting the other four. The choice usually comes down to the matchup or Nurse’s gut feeling on any given night. It’s not always an easy call, but for the next week that decision has been made for him.
“No more losing sleep over that,” the Raptors coach joked on Wednesday.
Beginning Thursday night against the Los Angeles Lakers, Ibaka will serve a three-game suspension issued by the NBA after the short-tempered big man exchanged punches with Cleveland’s Marquese Chriss in Monday’s loss to the Cavaliers.
Without Ibaka in the lineup, Gasol will start and should see a significant increase in minutes from the 22.8 he is averaging in his first 12 games as a Raptor.
The start of his tenure hasn’t gone as the 34-year-old would have hoped. He’s averaging 8.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists while struggling to find consistency bouncing between the two units.
Despite his experience and wealth of basketball knowledge, this has been an adjustment – being traded mid-season, switching teams for the first time in his 11-year-career and trying to get acclimated on the fly while filling a fluctuating role.
True to character, he’s been an absolute professional about it, but he’s looking forward to the extended run he’s about to get – even in these unusual circumstances.
“You understand the situation and you deal with whatever’s best for the team,” Gasol said. “There’s not going to be any complaints or negative vibes coming from me. The job is to do what’s best for the team and we have to figure out what we have to do going forward. I know at least for the next few games, it’s going to be consistent and I’m going to try to be consistent as well.”
So far, Gasol has played 62 minutes with Toronto’s regular starters. That group has outscored opponents by 11.0 points per 100 possessions. They’ve looked good, particularly on offence where they’re scoring 118.1 points per 100 possessions, but the sample size is still small.
For instance, Kawhi Leonard has missed two of the five games Gasol has started, and will almost certainly get another night off for load management in the upcoming back-to-back with Detroit and New York.
Even if the full first unit is only out there for two of the next three games, that should still give Gasol some much-needed reps and a chance to continue building chemistry with the team’s best players.
“I think maybe he needs it,” said Nurse. “I think maybe he needs some of this extended run here to kind of get unleashed, maybe. He’s making a lot of good decisions. He’s getting to a lot of spots. He’s not finishing a lot of things we think he can finish, even the three-ball. A lot of post moves he’s making fairly easily and they’re not going in. Maybe we can get him a little bit more rhythm and a little bit more volume of attempts and play through him a little bit more.”
“It’s a work in progress,” Gasol said. “You take two steps forward and one back and you just stay with it and be patient and don’t get frustrated, which could be easy at times. You keep working through things, communicating, keep a positive mindset and continue to work. It’s pretty simple.”
Part of the reason for platooning the two centres is that Nurse wants Gasol to develop a comfort level playing with guys from both units, same as Ibaka, to help prepare for the playoffs when they’ll need to be as versatile as possible.
However, with the postseason just a month off, Nurse recently indicated that he’d like to settle on a starting lineup sometime in the coming weeks.
We don’t know how far along Nurse was in making that decision, or whether he was already leaning in one direction or the other, but this could be the opportunity Gasol needs to run away with the job.
Ibaka will be back for next week’s home-and-home series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but if this three-game audition goes well for Gasol, he could find himself returning to a new, more permanent role coming off the bench.
There would be certain karmic justice to that.
This is Ibaka’s fourth suspension in just over two years with the Raptors – three of them handed down from the league for throwing a punch at an opposing player and one of them issued by the team for getting into a physical altercation with a staff member on the bus following a game last season.
Ibaka was with the team on Wednesday. He’s eligible to practise while suspended, but was held out of the light morning session along with many of the team’s other vets. He politely declined to speak with the media.
“The message I sent to our guys was let’s stick behind him and show him some love,” Nurse said. “He’s an important part of our team.”
“I mean, listen, it’s not great that this happens and obviously it’s not great the ramifications of the punishment. And it’s not great even from the big picture. He’s done really well this year emotionally. Just in general, he’s had a great season. He’s been a good teammate and all that stuff. So it’s a little bit of a bummer from that standpoint that he’s got to go through it and we’ve got to go through it. It’s just another little thing that we have to handle and move on from and learn from if we can. And look at the positives. We’ve already mentioned one – Marc gets a little more run and little more rhythm, and Serge gets a little rest.”