Oklahoma City Thunder: Serge Ibaka Is Key in Their Pursuit of a Championship

Mike AikinsContributor IINovember 23, 2010

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 27:  Ron Artest #37 of the Los Angeles Lakers rebounds the ball between Jeff Green #22 and Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2010 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on April 27, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

People, let me introduce you to the key player in the Oklahoma City Thunder's ability to go beyond the first round of the playoffs this year. Serge Ibaka is 6'10", 235 pounds, he's your prototypical "tweener"—a player that can play both the center and the power forward positions.

Ibaka has averaged nearly 12 points and eight rebounds by serving in more of a sixth man role with the Thunder this year.  He has started a few games when Jeff Green and Kevin Durant had to sit out with injuries.  

If you haven't had the chance to see Serge Ibaka play, you are missing one of the next up-and-coming rising superstars in the NBA.  Ibaka has a nice eight- to 10-foot jumper and has shown a lot of pure athleticism around the basket.  He is a strong physical specimen and will not back down to anyone.   

Ibaka is averaging about 28 to 30 minutes per game and shows flashes of brilliance, making Thunder fans ponder whether or not if he can continue to perform at a the same level throughout the season.  If he does continue to maintain his averages in points and rebounds coming off the bench, I am hereby casting my vote for Serge Ibaka as the early top candidate for NBA Sixth Man of The Year.

Ibaka is the consummate coach's player.  He's humble, he's coachable, he catches on very fast, and he is physically gifted enough to compete with the best in the NBA. If Serge Ibaka can "hold his own" against the other prominent players that he goes up against in the Western Conference, the Thunder stand a better chance of going deeper into the second or third round of the playoffs. 

So The Oklahoma City Thunder just needs to figure out how to get the most out of Serge Ibaka when he is out on the floor. He will be the key in the Thunder's pursuit to take it beyond the first round of the playoffs. Durant, Westbrook, and Green are going to get theirs, coach Scott Brooks just has to decide if it makes more sense to play Ibaka off of the bench or start him. 

Serge Ibaka has gained a lot of support from Thunder loyalists to start at the center along with Green, Durant, Westbrook and Sefolosha.  Serge Ibaka is athletic enough and savvy enough to start for the Thunder and give them the productivity they need from the Center position. 

Just in case you haven't heard, a good center is hard to find nowadays in the NBA. Since Serge Ibaka can play the center role legitimately, he needs to start at the center position which will cause the Thunder to be a lot more "athletic" underneath. 

Regardless of what position Ibaka is listed at offensively, he will have to play defense and guard the likes of Lamar Odom when the Thunder play the Lakers, Al Jefferson when the Thunder play the Jazz, LeMarcus Aldridge when the Thunder play the Trail Blazers, Tim Duncan when the Thunder play the Spurs, Blake Griffin when the Thunder play the Clippers and so on and so forth throughout the Western Conference.

As you can see, Ibaka will have to matchup with the league's best and it will crucial to the Thunder's success if he can "hold his own" in these head-to-head duels each night against some of the best power forwards and centers in the game today.  

Jeff Green is a solid and proven producer at power forward. When you put him with Ibaka, then throw-in Kevin Durant, a big 6'10 small forward, the Thunder can pose a wicked matchup threat to their opponents. Now you have the option of splitting time between Thabo Sefolosha and James Hardin at the two-guard position. So when you need defense go with Thabo and when you need offense, go with James.   

Russell Westbrook and his backup Eric Maynor are a formidable tandem.  Westbrook is young, vibrant, full of energy and will dominate the point-guard position for many more years to come. Maynor is a legitimate backup, a great assist man that sees the floor well, doesn't make a lot of mistakes and can get you double figures in points on a regular basis. 

The key to all or any of this ever working is Serge Ibaka.  If the Thunder can maximize the talent and athleticism of Serge Ibaka, they will have a better chance of getting beyond the first round of the NBA playoffs. D.J. White, a 6'9" second year player, also has young legs and a lot of potential.  He definitely makes the Thunder a bigger team down low matched up with Jeff Green and Serge Ibaka. 

Nick Collison gives them strength off the bench because he is tough, gritty and determined to do the "dirty work" and be the top "hustler" on the team.  Cole Aldridge, starter Nenad Krstic, and second-year player Byron Mullens give the Thunder all they have to work with in the post. But Krstic, the current starter, doesn't have a real big upside. 

The center position remains the most difficult position in the NBA to staff for.  The days of the polished prototypical big man like a Hakeem Olajuwon are few and far between.  The center position has suffered the most in terms of a decline in the evolution and advancement in the skill-set of the players who play this position (see Darko Milicic).  

Michael Jordan and the crossover dribble changed the emphasis from the big man and the half-court offense, to what we have now, a faster-paced game dominated by the one, two, and three positions. The international game has also evolved into more of a fast-paced skills game, as opposed to a big man's game like during the Kareem Abdul Jabbar era. 

It would serve the Oklahoma City Thunder well if the would start Serge Ibaka, and find a way to utilize his youthful athleticism in the best interests of the team as soon as possible. This will undoubtedly make a difference in the won-loss column.   

The time is now to go for it. The Oklahoma City Thunder have nothing to lose and everything to gain by putting Serge Ibaka in a more formidable role to help the team. 

If the plan is to try to win a championship next year or the year after, then the Thunder would be better served to keep Serge Ibaka in the same role.  If the plan is to try to compete for a championship this year, Serge Ibaka is definitely the x-factor that will give the Oklahoma City Thunder a better chance to do it.