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Serge Ibaka surprised but comfortable with his move to Clippers

Toronto Raptors center Serge Ibaka shoots over Boston Celtics guard Brad Wanamaker.
Toronto Raptors center Serge Ibaka shoots over Boston Celtics guard Brad Wanamaker during the first half on Sept. 9 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Serge Ibaka never intended for his 12th NBA season to begin by sitting in front of a Clippers banner inside the team’s Playa Vista practice facility.

When the 7-footer entered free agency two weeks ago, his desire was to return to the Raptors alongside teammates he loved, for the franchise where he won a title, in a city he’d come to regard as home.

After the 31-year-old averaged a career-high 15.4 points a game while coming off the bench last season, Ibaka believed the interest would be mutual and that talks with the team would be quick. He never seriously considered going anywhere else. As the first 24 hours of free agency unfolded, however, he realized it was not leading to a renewal of vows but a breakup. To keep its cap space flexible entering the next offseason, Toronto reportedly declined to offer a contract longer than one season.

“Yeah, I was surprised,” Ibaka said Thursday. “That’s why I made the decision to try to think about different options and then when the Clippers come into the picture.”

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Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, had reached out.

Maybe more important, though, was that Kawhi Leonard, his teammate on Toronto’s 2019 title team, had played recruiter too.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are expected to be full participants in the Clippers’ training camp this week, helping the team build unity they lacked last season.

“He texted me, ‘Hey, what’s up,’” Ibaka said. “I said, ‘What’s up, bro, I’m on vacation’... ‘Bro, are you coming or no?’ Just picture Kawhi in his voice. Like, it was funny. ‘Bro, are we doing it?’ It was very funny.”

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They would seem to be an odd couple. During his first meeting with reporters since signing a two-year contract with the Clippers — with the second year a player option — the Congo-raised, Spanish-trained big man offered long, candid insights into his decision fluently in three languages. Leonard, of course, is content not saying much in one.

Yet on the court, their accomplishments together speak for themselves. When Ibaka and Leonard played during their championship postseason, Toronto was 12.6 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions. They appeared comfortable around one another off the court. Leonard’s arrival after a trade from San Antonio brought out a “dramatic change in personality” from Ibaka, Raptors television analyst Leo Rautins told Sirius XM in November. By the start of the postseason, the publicly reticent Leonard appeared on an Ibaka-hosted YouTube cooking show, during which the big man succeeded in persuading his reluctant teammate to try beef penis pizza on camera. (Said Leonard after his first bite: “It’s not tender, man.”)

The Clippers are hoping their L.A. reunion will conjure similar success. Leonard’s presence “definitely helped” Ibaka choose the Clippers, he said.

“Kawhi is the type of person, you got to know him personally to understand,” Ibaka said. “From far, I see a lot of people say different things, even me, myself, but when you approach him and you spend time with him you understand him, you know he’s that type of guy. It just happened naturally, we just understand. One thing about me and Kawhi is like, there is no ego in our friendship. We don’t have an ego. I know who he is and he know as a teammate what I can do for him, for the team and it is make things smoother and easier.”

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Ibaka replaces Montrezl Harrell, who departed for the Lakers in free agency, and though Ibaka is five years older he is seen by the Clippers as an upgrade to their potential playoff lineups because he is “a stretch five, more of a pop player, but also is able to protect the rim, protect the basket,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. Almost half of all shots Ibaka took last season were inside 10 feet — he shot 63% — but he also made nearly 38% of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers.

For much of last season, however, the Clippers’ high-scoring offense and stingy defense wasn’t the problem. In their six-game first-round series victory against Dallas, and a stunning seven-game loss to Denver in the conference semifinals, the Clippers trusted too often in its on-paper potential while not making enough adjustments, forward Marcus Morris said.

“It’s not about the losing, it’s about how we lost and I think that’s the biggest motivation for this team because at the end of the day that team wasn’t better than us,” said Morris, who re-signed with the team on a four-year, $64-million contract. “We all knew that. To be up and to lose I think that that put an extra sting in our mentality.”

The NBA announced its first week of nationally televised games, highlighted by the Lakers and the Clippers meeting at 7 p.m. PST on opening night, Dec. 22.

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Said Ibaka: “Sometimes when you have big players on paper you are one of the best teams, sometimes you have a tendency to forget all the little things, the details,” Ibaka said. “It’s very important to us, no matter how good you are. To me, from afar, I felt like it was a lot of little things, details. They need good habits and the team didn’t have it last year. I’m sure of course you learn from it.”

Ibaka said he had yet to discuss his role with Lue. A day earlier, Lue said he envisioned Ibaka playing both forward and center, perhaps even in lineups alongside Ivica Zubac, last season’s starting center.

“But one thing’s for sure,” Ibaka said. “He know, I know, is we only have one thing on our mind, is to come here and try to compete at a high level and to do better than what the team did last year. So that’s one thing I know for sure and am prepared for.”


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