HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Serge Ibaka‘s four-year, $49.4 million extension kicks in this season just as James Harden digs into his five-year, $78.8 million free-agent contract.
The former Oklahoma City teammates will forever be linked. Ibaka is the Thunder’s shot-blocking frontcourt specimen, an emerging two-way force whose ascending trajectory seems as limitless as his team’s once did. Harden is the Houston Rockets’ uniquely gifted combo guard poised to be an All-Star for the next decade.
With paydays coming and the collective bargaining agreement tightening OKC’s purse strings to a hard-line course, general manager Sam Presti in August extended his big man, the less-expensive option, and in late October traded his sixth man.
How wise a strategy it was will be debated until the day the Kevin Durant–Russell Westbrook-Ibaka trio hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy. If Harden, flanked now by Dwight Howard for the next four seasons, wins one first, well, the case will be slammed shut.
The immediacy isn’t lost on Ibaka, 24, who enters his fifth NBA season saddled with enormous responsibility. The backbone of the Thunder’s top-four defense must also step up as its third scorer, a task made even more essential early on as Westbrook’s recovery from two right knee surgeries is expected to drag four to six weeks into the season.
Three weeks, Ibaka said, is all the time he allowed to step away after last season’s playoff disappointment. Three weeks and he was back in the gym with an agenda to expand an offensive arsenal that last season introduced a dangerous mid-range, pick-and-pop jumper. It worked to increase his usage from 15.5 percent in 2011-12 to a career-high 18.0 percent last season, and raised his scoring average from 9.1 ppg to a career-best 13.2 ppg.
His usage should rise even higher and the Thunder will need his points to as well.
“I’m working on my game and creating my own shot,” Ibaka said. “That is something I’ve been doing all summer, so I hope it will pay off. … I’ve been working on putting the ball on the floor and post moves.”
To suggest an offense that has been nothing short of a juggernaut the past few seasons could struggle to score beyond its big two might seem odd. But those past teams included the dynamic Harden and last year featured Kevin Martin as the sixth man. As streaky as Martin was, he delivered 14 ppg and better than 42 percent shooting from beyond the arc, on top of Ibaka’s production.
Martin’s in Minnesota and OKC promoted from within, expecting second-year shooting guard Jeremy Lamb to join third-year speedster Reggie Jackson to fill some of the scoring void off the bench (Jackson will start at point guard until Westrbrook returns). Lamb has had a sluggish start to the preseason, only heightening concerns that OKC will field enough firepower around Westbrook and Durant.
If the chiseled, 245-pound Ibaka, the reigning two-time shot-block king, can establish himself as a presence around the offensive rim, it would give the nearly unguardable duo of Westbrook and Durant a previously unavailable option. The lack of a low-post game with Ibaka and the offensively limited Kendrick Perkins has long been a glaring void, and a constant criticism, of the OKC attack.
“You know,” Ibaka said, “I’m sure I will be better than last year because I put a lot of work in this summer.”
Ibaka will take home more than $10 million than he did last season, and he’ll be asked to earn it. His shot attempts jumped from 7.42 a game in 2011-12 to 9.73 last season. During the playoffs they spiked to 12.2 a game. In the nine playoff games without Westbrook he took 10 or more shots eight times and 12 or more in six games.
Through two preseason games without Westbrook, Ibaka is 5-for-8 from the floor for 15 points in 27 minutes, and 9-for-16 for 18 points in 36 minutes.
The latter stat line, which included 11 rebounds and three blocks, likely resides in the neighborhood that will define success over failure for this edition of the championship-or-bust Oklahoma City Thunder.
“That’s why this summer I decided to only take three weeks,” Ibaka said, “and go back to work on my game and try to get better for next season.”