The pressure on the 23-year-old from the Republic of the Congo to improve his all-around game has certainly ramped up since the Thunder showered him with a four-year, $48 million deal in August that ultimately made it impossible for Oklahoma City to throw enough money at Harden, leading to his stunning trade to the Houston Rockets.
Also adding ample heat to Ibaka is the move of Dwight Howard to the Western Conference and onto the Thunder’s chief threat to the crown, the Los Angeles Lakers. Ibaka will face Howard four times season instead of two.
Even though Ibaka technically plays power forward, his frame (although not quite as stout) and game (not quite as developed) is not dissimilar from Howard’s, particularly as an elite enforcer at the rim. Ibaka has quickly become a master swatter, slapping away 241 shots last season in 66 games, 106 more than his closest competitor, Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, in the same number of games. Ibaka blocked 125 more shots than Howard (who played in 54 games) and 152 more than Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler (who played 62 games).
Ibaka’s penchant for swats earned him second place in DPOY voting — even if he’s not yet the overall paint protector as Howard or Chandler — and a spot next to Howard on the NBA’s all-defensive first team.
So is Ibaka ready to take the next step and become the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year? Not if the newly minted Laker has anything to say about it (and Howard’s already voiced displeasure with Chandler’s victory that prevented Howard from becoming the league’s first to win the award in four consecutive seasons).
And, likely, not if Ibaka doesn’t improve in a key category — defensive rebounding. The 6-foot-10, 235-pounder ranked 39th last season in total defensive boards, well behind teammate Kevin Durant, old-timers Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, both of whose minutes per game were in Ibaka’s neighborhood of 27.2 a game, and even off the pace of Dallas Mavericks small forward Shawn Marion.
Ibaka averaged just 4.6 defensive rebounds last season, down nearly half-a-board from the year before. Howard led everyone by a mile, grabbing an average of 10.8 defensive rebounds in 38.3 minutes. Even when Ibaka’s stats are extrapolated per 36 minutes, he still fell four defensive rebounds shy of Howard’s total and just about one-half board fewer than Chandler.
The former 2008 first-round draft pick has certainly been a quick study thus far in his career. Some have compared him to another African-born shot-blocker extraordinaire, Hakeem Olajuwon. The two-time NBA champion Olajuwon worked so diligently at his craft that he blossomed into one of the all-time great dominant forces at both ends of the floor.
With Harden out of the picture, Ibaka’s offensive game could be asked to expand. His numbers, both scoring and rebounding, have remained the same the last two seasons. But put aside scoring for the moment — Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Martin will provide plenty — if the Thunder expect to get past the game’s best rebounder and the transformed Lakers and return to the NBA Finals, Ibaka will have to become a far greater force on the defensive boards.