Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
We've gotten used to hearing those names in that order, and for good reason. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both bona fide superstars who are definitely the two best players on this Oklahoma City Thunder team.
However, with two giant stars on the roster, there's bound to be guys who sort of live in their shadow. James Harden was in that shadow, even as a star sixth man, but wanted to spread his wings which eventually resulted in him being dealt to Houston.
Serge Ibaka, on the other hand, has thrived in the shadow. He's posting career-high averages in points (13.2), rebounds (7.8), all of his shooting percentages and already has as many double-doubles (12) as he did all of last season.
Despite all of these improvements, Ibaka's most talked about moment this season happened on a certain box-out play with Blake Griffin.
Nutshot notwithstanding, Ibaka has been playing a fine season for Oklahoma City, and it's about time he gets some credit for it.
Ibaka is beginning to make the transition from a defensive/shot-blocking specialist to a more offensively significant power forward. While the blocks and defensive rebounding are still there, Ibaka has become a great post scoring option for the Thunder while also having the versatility to shoot from the perimeter.
Replacing Harden was and is still a hard task for OKC, who lost a dynamic scorer known for making plays in big moments. Though getting Kevin Martin in return has really helped to fill the void, it is Ibaka's development that has subtly softened the blow as well.
Ibaka becoming one of Oklahoma City's alternative scoring options has helped Durant and Westbrook as well, especially with him developing a semi-reliable three-point shot.
Though he's loved and adored by Thunder fans, Ibaka doesn't really get too much love outside the walls of the Chesapeake Energy Arena. I'm not talking about terms of popularity, but rather in terms of those who don't really see how much he contributes to the success the Thunder have been having this season.
By becoming a more well-rounded player, Ibaka has become one of the better power forwards in the game, and he's still just 23 years old. Though many pass through his stats and see a pretty average starting big man, what they don't see is how well Ibaka fits into the Thunder's system on both ends of the ball.
People chastise Westbrook all the time about not deferring to the better player (Durant) more often, but Ibaka does this rather frequently.
One of the best parts about the Thunder, though, is that these teammates work well together and really understand each other's games. So when Ibaka does have the hot hand, Westbrook and Durant have no problem feeding him the ball as demonstrated in this crucial Western Conference Finals Game 4 against San Antonio last year.
This big performance in a big-time game was a sample of how much better Serge has gotten this season with his increased role.
Simply put, Ibaka has done a lot to contribute to OKC's smooth transition without Harden. More importantly, he's also solidified the frontcourt for the Thunder alongside the valuable, though statistically insignificant, Kendrick Perkins.
It's understandably very easy to overlook Ibaka when Durant and Westbrook make so many great plays for Oklahoma City, but his improved game and consistency have shined through in the numbers.
Specifically in an advanced stat known as win shares, an estimate of wins contributed by a certain player, Ibaka stands at 7.7 for the season, a career high. To get an idea of how this stacks up against his teammates, Durant's win shares for the year is 15.7 while Westbrook stands at just 9.7.
As you can see, Ibaka is not too far behind in contributing to the most important aspect of team basketball: winning.
If we're sticking with advanced stats, Ibaka also has an impressive offensive rating (a measurement of points produced per 100 possessions for a player) of 117. This is just slightly behind Durant's rating of 122 and even ahead of Westbrook's at 111.
From the statistics to the intangibles, Ibaka has been an integral component to the Thunder this season. Though you won't see him too much on the highlights, save for some nice blocks or dunks, just know that Serge Ibaka is a quiet force for Oklahoma City who will step out of the shadows every now and again to get some well-deserved credit.
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