How OKC Thunder Should Adjust to Serge Ibaka Loss Versus San Antonio Spurs

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How OKC Thunder Should Adjust to Serge Ibaka Loss Versus San Antonio Spurs
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

Losing Serge Ibaka is a big deal for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

How's that for a leading candidate in the "obvious statement of the day" race?

There are certain elements of Ibaka's game that the Thunder will ultimately be unable to replace. No one can step into his defensive shoes and protect the rim like he both could and had been doing throughout the postseason. OKC's guards are no longer going to be able to run pick-and-pops with as much success, simply because none of the remaining bigs have jumpers nearly as threatening.

"We're going to play team defense," Russell Westbrook told reporters after the news broke that the Thunder's Congolese big man was ruled out. "We're not going to take the onus on ourselves to block shots and do what Serge does, because nobody can do that."

So what can the Thunder do? 

Above all else, it boils down to Scott Brooks shifting the rotations around. He must strike the proper balance between small ball and a more traditional lineup, which can be tough against a strategic mastermind like the one the San Antonio Spurs will have on the sideline during the Western Conference Finals. 

 

When Durant is on the Court

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Fortunately for Brooks, he has a special kind of weapon at his disposal. A very unique one, in fact.

His name is Kevin Durant

The league MVP may be listed at 6'9" by Basketball-Reference.com, but that's deceptively tiny. Based on how he stacks up with other players, KD is closer to 7'0" than 6'9", and that gives him the size necessary to play power forward in a small-ball lineup. Or even a standard one, for that matter.

It's not something that happened all that often this year, even if it's a workable solution. 

Basketball-Reference shows that Durant spent 71 percent of his time at the 3 and 25 percent at power forward, but 82games.com tells a slightly different story. According to that database, the 25-year-old played 83 percent of the Thunder's available minutes at small forward, four percent at shooting guard and 30 percent at power forward. 

Either way, he could do it. He just didn't all that often throughout the 2013-14 campaign, at least not compared to how often he played at small forward. Now, with that out of the way, how effective was OKC when Durant was lined up at the 4? 

Durant's player efficiency rating at the forward spots
PER for PER against Net PER
SF 30.7 11.0 19.7
PF 33.0 13.4 19.6

82games.com

When you really think about that chart, it makes perfect sense. 

Durant is naturally going to be a better offensive player at power forward, largely because he's being guarded by power forwards. Tautological as that may sound right off the bat, his style of play isn't going to change despite being guarded by a more lumbering set of defenders. 

Conversely, it's easier for him to guard small forwards because he isn't giving up quickness and possesses a distinct size advantage thanks to his lanky frame and impressive wingspan. 

Of course, his numbers at both positions are unquestionably elite on both ends of the court. Durant has become one of the more versatile talents in the Association, and he could likely excel no matter where Brooks threw him out onto the court. 

Switching Durant over to the 4 isn't the issue; finding a replacement at the 3 is. 

It's a given that Kendrick Perkins and Steven Adams will be rotating at center, but who's actually going to play small forward? Well, the Thunder have a few options, even if Brooks inexplicably keeps Jeremy Lamb out of his rotation.

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Either Caron Butler starts the game at small forward, allowing Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha to keep their natural spots in the lineup, or Reggie Jackson becomes a starter once more, giving the Thunder a two-point guard lineup with Sefolosha at the 3.

Neither option is bad, but against a Spurs team that starts a big shooting guard (Danny Green is listed at 6'6", 210 pounds) and an appropriately sized small forward (Kawhi Leonard is 6'7", 225 pounds), giving up more size isn't a good idea. Durant is already going to be forced into guarding either Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter, so keeping Jackson as a bench spark plug is the ideal solution. 

Unfortunately, this lineup can't spend 48 minutes on the court. 

Jackson can fill in at either guard spot, and Sefolosha—as discussed up above—is fully capable of sliding over to small forward when necessary. Perry Jones can line up at the 3 as well, though, he shouldn't be playing big minutes.

But what happens at power forward? 

 

When Durant Needs Rest

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Much as Brooks would love to think otherwise, Durant is occasionally going to need a breather. 

Through the first two rounds of the playoffs, the MVP is playing a league-high 44.5 minutes per game. That's a ridiculous number, and it'll work out as long as the 25-year-old doesn't wear down prematurely.

According to NBA.com's SportVU data, he's also run further than anyone else in the postseason and is the active leader in miles run per game (2.8). The only seven players ahead of him were all eliminated in either the first or second round. 

That's to say that Durant might end up having to slow down a bit against the Spurs, particularly because they demand such precise movement on both ends of the court. At the very least, he can't afford to have his energy sapped by guarding one of the two big men throughout the course of an entire game. 

Sometimes, Durant will get that breather by downsizing and playing at the 3. That'll at least allow him to be hidden a little more, as he won't be the target of post-up assaults. But what happens then? The same question applies to those few minutes that he spends on the pine. 

And this is where things get tricky. 

Nick Collison will likely be a replacement—and he could possibly start games as well, allowing Durant to remain at the 3, though, that diminishes the amount of talent OKC can throw against its opponent—but who else? Playing Adams and Perkins together would be a recipe for disaster, and it's tough to imagine PJ3 getting too much run in such a crucial situation. 

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That sounds pretty simple, right? So why is it tricky? 

It's the same reason that I'd be hesitant to start Collison. Putting him and either Adams or Perkins together in the frontcourt virtually eliminates the big men from being scoring threats. It allows both Splitter—who has been a fantastic defender during the playoffs—and Duncan to key in on Durant's jumpers and Westbrook's drives. 

As Rob Mahoney writes for Sports Illustrated:

Going smaller is the most sensible way to address a potential scoring deficit. The Thunder bigs are good for utility points only — Adams will get the odd roll to the rim, Collison can hit a few open jumpers and Perkins might net the occasional putback. Yet by keeping just one of those bigs on the floor with Westbrook, Durant, Reggie Jackson and either Caron Butler or Sefolosha, Oklahoma City at the very least would vacate the lane and give its offense some combustible material. Maxed-out spacing might be the Thunder’s best bet.

Let's not forget just how finely tuned this San Antonio defense is. It's build to withstand nearly any type of assault, and having that glaring of a weakness allows Gregg Popovich to make adjustments and wreak havoc. 

Can the Thunder win the series against San Antonio without Ibaka?

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Kawhi Leonard is already going to make life difficult enough for Durant. The MVP doesn't also need Duncan cheating over on him because the frontcourt isn't imposing enough. 

Ultimately, Brooks is going to be forced into making adjustments. He's going to have to be—gasp—creative. 

The Thunder head coach has taken a lot of flak in recent weeks for his inflexibility and the hubristic rigidness of his lineups and rotations. Now, more than ever before, it's time for that to change. 

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