Olympic Basketball: What to Make of Serge Ibaka's Limited Playing Time

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Olympic Basketball: What to Make of Serge Ibaka's Limited Playing Time
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Serge Ibaka is a significant part of the Spanish national basketball team's most consistent and daunting advantage. Chemistry, pick-and-roll play, and an underrated defense all play a role in Spain's success, but its the size of their skilled front line—solidified by Pau and Marc Gasol, and augmented by Ibaka—that really separates them from the rest of the field in most international competitions. Plenty of teams have a quality big or two, but few have any single player as good as either Gasol brother, much less the ranks of bigs necessary to contend with any combination of Spain's three talented bigs.

Yet over the course of group play, Ibaka played just 79 total minutes through five games—a total that puts him roughly at the median of the Spanish team's roster in terms of playing time. That may seem odd given how good Ibaka is and how prominent he's come to be on the NBA scene, but his playing time thus far actually makes sense in the context of Spain's modus operandi.

The Gasol brothers are far more essential to Spain's strategy than Ibaka is, and each can be penciled in for about 30 minutes a night. In the 40-minute affairs of FIBA-style basketball (which affords a total of 80 minutes between both "big" positions), that leaves about 20 minutes for Ibaka between slotted time at either power forward or center.

And though Ibaka's minutes total may seem a bit low, he actually hit that 20-minute mark in two of Spain's five preliminary games and played 17 minutes in a third game against Australia. The only true restrictions on playing time have come in games against Great Britain and Russia, each of which presented unique and reasonable circumstances for curbed minutes.

The game against Great Britain simply wasn't Ibaka's finest; he committed two turnovers and three fouls in just 12 minutes, and looked a touch slow in getting to the ball on rebounding opportunities. He wasn't exactly doing anything for Spain to demand more playing time, and once the Spanish team took hold and started coasting, head coach Sergio Scariolo gradually began to work in his deep reserves while keeping just one big on the floor. That meant a bit less playing time for Ibaka, as Spain attempted to ride out a victory, and even less as they went with their starters late to stop the bleeding against GB's comeback efforts. 

As for Russia: zone defenses are a perfect way to mitigate Ibaka's value, and the David Blatt-coached Russian team employs a number of different zone and hybrid zone looks. Spain needed every bit of firepower it could get against a Russia's often unpredictable D, and the Gasols are simply much more effective at working the high post, passing to cutters, and connecting on open mid-range looks. Pau and Marc are natural zone killers, and while Ibaka could provide value by working the offensive glass, Spain instead opted to use the Gasols and smaller lineups designed to space the floor.

The fact that Ibaka doesn't play heavy minutes isn't at all an indictment of his on-court value; it's merely a confirmation of the fact that he doesn't have the all-around game that the Gasols do. So Scariolo finds time for the prolific shot-blocker whenever he can, and whenever it doesn't actively risk what Spain hopes to accomplish on offense. It can be a tricky balance at times, and one complicated by how talented Spain's roster is from top to bottom. But regardless of how strange it may seem that an excellent NBA player is getting limited floor time on an Olympic roster, this is simply the way it is and has been for Ibaka since joining the loaded Spanish national team, and it will continue to be for as long as the Gasols function as the team's joint centerpiece.

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