For some, the “big three” phenomenon—where "traditional" NBA team building is usurped by corner-cutting emphases on superstar signings—underscores the cynicism that has come to govern our beloved pastimes.
Even now, after a pair of championships executed with professional aplomb, the Miami Heat have yet to fully outrun that stigma.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, we like to believe, are different. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka: OKC’s troika, the thinking goes, represents the homegrown, organic alternative to Miami’s fast-food franchise management.
Which might explain why the last of the three is having a hard time hitting his final basketball growth spurt.
Every season, it seems, begins with the wider NBA world proclaiming this to be the year Serge Ibaka takes his game to the next level. And every season—though the signs and stats briefly suggest otherwise—we’re somehow left wanting a little more.
In February, Bleacher Report’s Jared Zwerling, in a superb excursus on Ibaka’s unique basketball journey, cited the Congolese forward’s stellar stretch during Russell Westbrook’s knee injury as proof probable that his next stage had been officially engaged.
During that stretch without Westbrook, the 6'10", 245-pound Ibaka had a night when he shot a career-high 12-of-12 from the field, and two others when he was 10-of-13. And for the season—during which he's only missed one game, with the flu—the physical, super athletic specimen is also averaging 8.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game, and he already has more double-doubles (19) than he had all of last season (15).
Zwerling’s principal source for the story, trainer Joe Abunassar, reiterated just how dominant Ibaka had been with Westbrook on the sidelines.
Watching (the Thunder) play now and the way he's working with Durant, and the way he's stepped up when Westbrook has been out, two things: 1) That's what the Thunder need; and 2) It's what Serge wants. The guy has an incredible drive to maximize his ability.
No need to read between the lines here: Since Westbrook’s return, Ibaka’s production has been almost perfectly on par, per NBA.com (media stats subscription only).
|December 26-February 19||15.7||8.5||2.8||.594|
|February 20-March 19||15.6||8.6||2.6||.562|
ESPN writer and stats guru Dean Oliver gives another instructive take on this point.
NBA: For OKC, this is the percentage of team shots taken by players w/Durant on floor and w/Westbrook on floor. pic.twitter.com/kpoQI6O02Q— Dean Oliver (@DeanO_ESPN) March 26, 2014
Rather, the chief issue concerns whether Durant and Westbrook—gifted, once-in-a-generation offensive forces if ever two existed—can grow to depend on Ibaka more down the stretch of certain games.
To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at Ibaka’s production by quarter.
Note that while Ibaka’s overall efficiency and impact hit their apex in the final frame, his scoring and shot attempts take a bit of a hit.
Whether the solution entails head coach Scott Brooks drawing up plays and sets to get Ibaka more involved or simply playing him more minutes (Serge tends to sit at the beginning of the fourth quarter), is anyone’s guess.
What’s indisputable, however, is this: As the playoffs unfold and the opposition focuses more intently on stopping Russ and KD, there will be moments—myriad moments, perhaps—when the Thunder will be forced to look elsewhere for clutch buckets.
Asking the Thunder to bypass two of the game's preeminent scorers in crunch time might be a lost cause. But getting Ibaka more involved, given his efficiency and regardless of quarter, would at least help keep defenses honest.
Along those same lines, the offenses OKC faces from the end of April on are bound to be more proficient and efficient (think: San Antonio Spurs). Indeed, this may be where Ibaka needs to make his biggest, most consistent impact.
Chiding Kendrick Perkins has become something of a social-media bloodsport over the past few seasons, due manly to the lumbering, oft-injured center being an outright liability on the offensive end.
Perkins’ defensive presence, however, has been sorely missed of late—by Ibaka in particular.
|Before/After Perkins Injury||OKC DRtg||OKC Net Rtg||Ibaka DRtg||Ibaka Net Rtg|
There’s clearly an inherent risk to slotting Ibaka at center: While peerlessly athletic and stellar on rotations, Ibaka’s height—6’9”—could leave him vulnerable to mismatches and foul trouble in the wrong situations.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Ibaka’s defensive rating has been on a steady decline since charting a stellar 98 during the 2011-12 season—this despite OKC’s overall efficiency remaining largely the same (per ESPN.com).
Without poring through gigabytes of tracking data, it’s impossible to say how much Ibaka’s defensive stagnation can be attributed to individual deficiencies versus how big a role scheme and personnel play into the equation.
As things stand, buoyed by Durant’s gangbusters play, the Thunder remain on the short list of legitimate NBA title contenders, a fact owing in large part to the growth and development of Serge himself.
But to make the leap from fringe star to championship crux, it’s on Ibaka to move beyond the tantalizing teases that merely suggest his time is now and imprint himself on games in ways we'll all recall in wows.
All NBA.com media stats are subscription only.