Just before today’s tipoff in Miami, The Athletic’s Eric Nehm tweeted something out that likely flew under many Bucks fans’ radars:
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said he does not expect Serge Ibaka (personal reasons) to join the team when they get back home to Milwaukee. https://t.co/J1cRbgQXV0— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) January 14, 2023
Speculating on what “personal reasons” could be for a pro athlete isn’t usually a productive exercise. Occasionally it can mean something positive, like when Jayson Tatum’s nebulous one-game absence a few weeks ago turned out to be for celebrating his son’s birthday. Most of the time, however, the reasoning is less than fortunate: family tragedy, struggles with personal demons, etc.
In Serge Ibaka’s case, it appears to be due to dissatisfaction with the team. In an interview published just over a week ago with a Spanish outlet (though Congolese, Ibaka played two years in Spain prior to coming stateside), the reserve big was asked about coach Mike Budenholzer and had this to say:
I’m proficient enough in Spanish to tell you that he’s reporting he’s fully healthy but is in a tough situation behind Brook Lopez’s All-Star caliber play. He goes on to say essentially “that’s life as an NBA player and I need to keep working because you don’t know what will happen in the future.” Boilerplate stuff.
The reporter then mentions that Bud has spoken highly of Ibaka publically, to which the veteran feigns some ignorance (“which coach?”) before stating “truthfully, I don't know what to say on this topic.” You don’t need to speak Spanish to understand the last line above, of course.
Could Ibaka be the source of the mysterious “chemistry issues” alluded to by Bill Simmons on his podcast nearly two weeks ago? Perhaps. Moreover, Ibaka is not with the team and clearly doesn’t have feelings of sunshine and daisies about his current role. He’s appeared in just two games since November 21st for a grand total of 27 combined minutes, putting up very few counting stats during that action.
To be sure, Ibaka hasn’t looked good when he’s played this season, so I’m not sure how you can blame Bud for the benching. Appearing in just 16 games, he’s averaging 4.1 points and 2.8 rebounds per outing in 11.6 MPG. His halcyon “Iblocka” days are long gone, as he’s averaging just 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes. He’s simply never looked the same after 2021 back surgery and at 33, his NBA career seems to be winding down.
As he seems (?) to understand, there’s very little playing time to be had behind the three-headed big man rotation of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez, and Bobby Portis. Given that each has enjoyed pretty good health this season and how today’s NBA tends to skew smaller, it follows that Ibaka is only in Milwaukee for insurance, which the team hasn’t really needed yet. When opting to re-up with the Bucks on a veteran’s minimum this offseason, one would think he’d have understood his role on the team.
If indeed he is unhappy and remains away from the team, he’s most likely to be a salary-matching piece if involved in a trade; with a $1.84m cap hit, his expiring deal won’t fetch much more on its own. It’s possible the Bucks could simply waive him too, keeping his salary on the books but opening up a roster spot for a new 15th man.
It’s possible Serge Ibaka has played his last game as a Buck. We’ll always have the cooking videos.