When the Oklahoma City Thunder cut ties with sharpshooting guard James Harden prior to the start of last season, they weren't thinking about the talented trio they were financially forced to break apart.
They already had visions of the next Big Three brewing in their backyard, a group fifth-year forward Serge Ibaka seems finally ready to join.
Between perennial All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder had already uncovered the two scarcest roster pieces. Star-studded collections are nothing without transcendent talents, and OKC had a pair of the Association's finest already under its belt.
With the arms race taking place in today's league, though, a talented twosome only travels so far down the path to the podium. For the Thunder to make that journey to title town, a true triumvirate will be needed.
If Ibaka's ready to carry that third torch, then OKC's parade planners should keep their summer schedules cleared.
Power in Numbers
Life as an NBA third wheel isn't easy.
The grind is every bit as tough as it is for the marquee players, but the glory couldn't be any different. First and second options know everything that lies behind the velvet ropes. The third player in the pecking order enjoys fleeting moments in the spotlight, sandwiched between prolonged debates over whether they might be expendable.
Opportunities are scarce. Stat sheets are watered down. Talent is sacrificed, or at least masked by a minimized role.
Oftentimes, something needs to happen to spring these players loose. In Ibaka's case, his opportunity came by subtraction—the loss of Westbrook to his third knee surgery since April.
The big man has seized this moment:
Serge Ibaka has now scored at least 20 points in three straight games. First time he's done that in his career.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) January 20, 2014
Westbrook's sudden departure caught this team off guard, and Ibaka needed a moment to prepare himself for his ascension up the totem pole. Each passing day he seems to be getting more comfortable with his new responsibilities.
Over his last 11 games, Ibaka, who holds a 10.4 career scoring average, has poured in 17.4 points on a scalding .567/.556/.800 shooting slash. He's tracked down 8.9 rebounds over that stretch (easily outpacing his career 7.3 mark) and blocked 3.3 shots a night.
Swatting shots is nothing new for the 24-year-old. He's averaged 2.6 rejections over his career and paced the league in the category in each of the last two seasons.
Shredding nets isn't entirely a foreign skill, but he's doing it more consistently and more efficiently than ever before.
He had eight regular-season games with 20-plus points over his first four seasons. He has six of them in his last nine outings, including a brilliant 22-point effort (on 50 percent shooting) in Oklahoma City's 112-95 dismantling of the two-time defending champion Miami Heat on Wednesday.
Durant, who's now scored 30-plus points in 12 straight games (the longest such streak in more than a decade), is on a different level from his NBA peers, but Ibaka's emergence has helped the MVP front-runner reach that uber-exclusive level.
The Ibaka Effect
Pouring over the stat sheet is only part of the process in capturing Ibaka's importance. Numbers are meaningless without proper context.
OKC thrives at both ends of the floor, but its defensive play (99.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, third overall) has been slightly more dominant than its offense (107.6 points per 100 possessions, fifth overall).
Ibaka still shines brightest at the defensive side, so that's where we'll start examining his impact.
At 6'10", 245 pounds, he doesn't appear to be the most intimidating player under the basket. But his combination of strength, speed and athleticism makes him someone the opposing team has to account for at all times.
The Thunder plot long, athletic land mines all across their defensive front, but getting past that first wave is only part of the challenge. Drivers must then decide whether they want to try to finish around, above or through Ibaka—none of which are appealing options.
While he blocks a crazy amount of shots, he changes even more of them. He's holding opponents to just 43.7 percent shooting at the rim, the fourth-lowest mark among all players facing at least six such shots per game this season.
Still, he can't be called a defensive specialist given the effect he's had at the opposite end.
His low-post game is still a work in progress (0.84 points per post-up possession, 65th in the league), but that's OK for the Thunder. His ability to remain an offensive threat away from the basket opens driving lanes for Durant, Westbrook and Reggie Jackson to exploit.
Ibaka is getting more comfortable beyond the arc (13-of-34 from three, 38.2 percent, on the season), but for now his floor spacing comes courtesy of a buttery soft mid-range stroke.
He does two things extremely well as a scorer: knock down 15-footers and finish plays at the basket. Throw in his thick frame, solid base and good balance, and suddenly you have the makings of an ideal screen-setter.
He brings defenders with him wherever he goes off the pick, either rolling to the rack or popping out for a jump shot. Durant has taken full advantage of that fact and seen his productivity as a pick-and-roll ball-handler soar.
KD had the 22nd ranked scoring rate in those situations during the 2011-12 season (0.93 points per possession) and climbed to 17th in 2012-13 (0.91), via Synergy Sports (subscription required). This season, he's turning in the second-most points on those plays (1.06) while converting 54.3 percent of his field-goal attempts.
Ibaka has the strength to bully opposing forwards and more quickness than opposing centers can handle. He gives so much effort that he doesn't need plays called for him. If he spots an opening, he'll put himself in the right place at the right time.
With front-page ability and no problems giving up headline coverage, he's the perfect third piece for OKC's three-headed monster.
What Happens When Westbrook Comes Back?
That's easily the most intriguing part of this narrative and OKC's as a whole.
With the Thunder having now reeled off nine consecutive wins, it's easy to forget that there's an all-world point guard still waiting to re-enter the fold. As good as OKC has been of late, Westbrook makes it even better. That's not really up for debate.
The bigger question is whether we'll still see this Ibaka when Westbrook's back running the show. The difference between having Westbrook at the helm as opposed to Jackson is roughly five additional field-goal attempts taken by the lead guard (Westbrook is averaging 17.9 per game this season, Jackson's put up 12.7 as a starter).
Ibaka's going to lose some quantity. It comes with the territory as a No. 3 option.
The quality of his looks, however, should only increase. Jackson can't match Westbrook's levels of scoring (14.0 as a starter, Westbrook is at 21.3) or distributing (4.9 assists against 7.0). Westbrook's also a dynamic pick-and-roll player, so Ibaka should expect even more point-blank shots and clean mid-range attempts in his future.
The stat sheet won't tell the whole story, but Ibaka is more than ready to assume his place among OKC's triad. When Westbrook's body allows him to complete the Big Three, the Thunder could have great things in their future.
Championship-caliber things even.