Don't get me wrong; the Thunder can absolutely win a title with Ibaka as he is now. Last season, OKC won 60 games and had the top winning margin in the league at a whopping plus-9.2 (per ESPN.com). Before Russell Westbrook was injured, a return trip to the NBA Finals seemed likely.
No, what's at stake here is the Thunder's ability to take back what once seemed like a given—ownership of the Western Conference.
Before James Harden was traded, OKC was poised to skate through the West every year the way the Los Angeles Lakers did in the early 2000s. The conference is a whole lot tougher than it was just a season ago, but the Thunder still have the chance to reign supreme for years.
It all comes down to Ibaka.
Ibaka is first and foremost a defensive player, and to be honest, defensively is how the Thunder need Ibaka to grow the most.
People often concentrate on the Thunder's simplistic offensive scheme as a reason for their inability to win a title so far, but it's the defense that's really held them back. Even in the 2012 NBA Finals, the Thunder scored at a healthy rate (just a few ticks below their playoff average), but they got gashed on the other end (per NBA.com).
Defense is a team issue, so you can't heap all the blame on Ibaka, especially considering how nuts LeBron James was in that series. But he is OKC's top defender and rim protector, and it needs him to anchor the defense in big series.
There's no question that Ibaka can protect the rim, but he's a work in progress in almost every other area defensively. That's not to say he's bad—in fact, he's still quite good. But he's not worthy of the Defensive Player of the Year buzz he generates (he got 14 first-place votes last season, per NBA.com), and for the Thunder to reach their absolute peak, he'll need to get there.
Ibaka's still figuring out the little defensive nuances that separate the best defensive players from the rest of the pack. Hedging on pick-and-rolls, knowing when to chase weak-side blocks and when to stay with his man, not biting on shot fakes, not giving up ground on the low block...there's a lot to work on.
It's interesting to note that the Thunder were only a touch worse defensively when Ibaka sat last season (per 82games.com). That can mostly be attributed to lineup noise and the fact that Ibaka's backup, Nick Collison, is an outstanding defender in his own right. Ibaka's defensive impact is far greater than neutral.
But it also goes to show that Ibaka has a lot he could improve on, and considering how young he is, he should get there eventually.
The Thunder were elite defensively last season (fourth, per Basketball-Reference) and are set to be even better now that they won't have Kevin Martin dragging them down. But if Ibaka can grow to be a Marc Gasol or Tyson Chandler type of defensive anchor, there's no reason they couldn't lead the league.
Offensively, Ibaka has already carved out a niche for himself—he's one of the top mid-range jump shooters in the NBA.
Bigs who can shoot like Ibaka are rare, and he has some great pick-and-pop chemistry with Durant and Westbrook. Ibaka rarely creates his own shot, and to be honest, he probably never will. He can't really dribble or pass, and that pretty much rules out him developing an off-the-bounce or post game.
He can still improve offensively though, and if he does, it'll probably come one of two ways.
The first is through the pick-and-roll. Ibaka is a freak athlete and can finish at the rim. There's no reason he shouldn't be a terrific pick-and-roll player, flashing hard to the rim and sucking defenders into the paint. It hasn't happened yet in part because he tends to float around the perimeter, and also because Kendrick Perkins' lack of offense can make it really tough to find open lanes.
Still, Durant and Reggie Jackson (and to a lesser extent, Westbrook) are awesome pick-and-roll players. If the Thunder start to really mix up pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll sets, Ibaka could join them, and OKC's top-ranked offense could get yet another boost.
The second route is way less conventional but not totally implausible. Ibaka could work to become a legitimate three-point threat.
Don't laugh. It could happen. Last season, Ibaka hit 36 percent of his spot-up threes on over 60 attempts, per Synergy Sports Technology. Not a large sample size but enough to warrant the idea that Ibaka might be a solid three-point shooter.
Towards the end of last season, the Thunder sometimes had Ibaka float around the three-point line to provide spacing knowing he could knock down a jumper if the ball did swing his way. There's a chance they try to involve Ibaka's three-point shot with the actual game plan this season, and if Ibaka's up to the task, he'll give OKC unrivaled offensive versatility.
Grantland's Zach Lowe recently wrote this about Rasheed Wallace:
Seven-footers who can protect the rim on defense and hit a league-average percentage from 3-point range, as Sheed did six times in an eight-year span at the peak of his career, basically do not exist. I can't tell you how many times I've heard an executive say, "You know who Team X or Team Y really needs? Someone like Rasheed Wallace." And without missing a beat, that executive/coach/scout will say, "But you know what? There really aren't any of those guys.”
Ibaka can certainly protect the rim, and there's a good chance he can hit a league-average percentage from three. Believe it or not, he could be this generation's Rasheed Wallace.
Can you imagine something like a Jackson-Westbrook-Thabo Sefolosha-Durant-Ibaka lineup if Ibaka becomes a real threat spotting up from the corner? There's not a defense in the league that could stop that. The lane would be wide open.
That lineup more or less leads into the last thing Ibaka needs to focus on. He needs to learn to play center.
It's no secret that Perkins is better suited to be a situational player than a starter. Perkins is still a solid defender, but he's so poor offensively that it hardly matters.
However, Perkins still gets big minutes because at the moment, the Thunder don't have any other palatable options. Hasheem Thabeet has become a solid player—seriously—but he fouls at far too high a rate to be anything but a backup (per Basketball-Reference). And while Collison is good, he can't rebound well enough to play full-time.
Unless Ibaka can step up, Perk is essentially the go-to guy until this year's lottery pick, Steven Adams, is ready. I probably don't have to tell you that's not ideal.
Ibaka got just a sliver of minutes at the 5 last season, mostly because he's not a great rebounder, and the Thunder were poor defensively when he was there (per NBA.com).
For whatever reason, Ibaka's defensive rebounding percentage has dipped every year he's been in the league. It was down to 17 percent last season according to Basketball-Reference. That's not a total killer when he's at the 4, but it is if he plays center for extended periods—teams would wreck OKC on the boards.
There's no reason Ibaka shouldn't be a very good rebounder, and the Thunder need him to bounce back on the glass this season.
The rest will come down to Ibaka growing on defense in the ways we went over earlier. With Perkins on the court, Ibaka is sometimes free to be nothing but an elite rim protector. But when he's playing center, he needs to be more.
Again, the offensive implications of Ibaka playing big minutes at the 5 are staggering, but the Thunder will need more on defense and the boards for it to be really viable.
The Thunder are very, very good right now. They're one of the top three or four teams in the league without question. But they have a chance to be much more than that, and whether or not they realize that potential comes down to Ibaka's evolution. The clock is ticking.