Ibaka Beefs Up Pockets As Well As Game

 

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.”

16 Comments

  1. NBAfan says:

    I’m a Thunder fan and I would have chosen Harden over Ibaka. It sure would have been nice to have Harden start after Westbrook went down last year. Ibaka was just so frustrating to watch in the playoffs last year but not worse than Perkins.

  2. jimbo says:

    OKC made a mistake in not going after Jefferson, however Jefferson makes more than Ibaka so it might not have been realistic. Make no mistake, Ibaka must develop a post game and become a reliable 3rd option for OKC to reach the finals in 2014…as well as improved performances by almost everyone on the team. I believe they can do it, but the chemistry must be there. Go OKC !

  3. DAN says:

    the only one way overpaid in this story is Perkins. the guy is doing absolutely nothing. if they were a little bit smarter, they would get Al Jefferson this year. From my point of view, i dont see any difference between Perkins and, for example, Reggie Evans. Not to mention Andray Blatche. Enough said

  4. OKC says:

    Harden underpaid? He got a max contract for 5 years in a state with no income tax (which he deserved), wtf are you talking about?

  5. OKC says:

    People act like we feel off since we didn’t get back to the finals last year, but come on Westbrook went down and pending that we would have been right back there. Everyone saying we don’t have enough doesn’t know what they are talking about. REALLY? You think Kevin Martin leaving is going to hurt us that much? Yeah he got 15 ppg, but the dude couldn’t defend at all. We ended last season with the best record in the west and statistically better than we were on offense and defense than the season before when we had Harden. The continued improvement of KD and Westbrook will make us even better this year.

    As far as Ibaka goes, I don’t think he needs a post game, but instead just use that crazy athleticism to drive past people and dunk on their heads once they bite on his pump fake, which they will because he is a proven jump shooter. The guy is so athletic, he just needs to learn to pump fake then put the ball on the court.

  6. FU says:

    Perkins is the one dragging the team down!

  7. J says:

    if serge and lamb get a lot better (especially ibaka offensively) the thunder will be champions. ibaka is the key.

  8. freal says:

    Ibaka is overpaid and Harden is underpaid

  9. okc2014 says:

    Regardless of the raise, I expect Serge Ibaka to step up his game this year. He owes it from last year to his fans and then some. I think he will step up and OKC will not only make finals, but will win the title. Go Thunder!!!!!

    • Unkle Daddy says:

      They’ve got two really good players, one pretty good player and one okay player. They need so much more just to get back to the western finals. They need to convince Dirk, and a few other good players on the title hunt to come play there for less money and more glory.

  10. Ricardo Vaz says:

    There are some serious flaws in your logic. The race between OKC and Houston to see who wins the trophy first doesn’t settle the Harden-or-Ibaka debate for OKC fans. If Houston wins first, it only proves that Harden+Howard and co. are better built than Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka-…. It doesn’t prove that Durant-Westbrook-Harden would have also won, only that Houston wouldn’t have won it if OKC kept Harden (which we already knew). If OKC wins the title, it doesn’t guarantee that they wouldn’t also do it had they kept Harden, but fans will be happy enough. If OKC wins the title this year, then we know that there wouldn’t be a better scenario this season with Harden on board, since this is the first season they would be without Harden or Ibaka.

  11. Uncle Drew says:

    We saw in the 2012 NBA Finals how crucial it was that Ibaka could simply not take advantage of Miami’s small ball. Who knows, if Serge had a post game back then, maybe OKC would’ve had their first banner raised in Chesapeake Energy Arena.

  12. Richard says:

    I love his potential, but in order to diversify OKC’s offense he needs to be a legitimate low post threat, with or without Harden. When faced with an athletic swarming defense that can prevent penetration (e.g. playing against miami in the finals), they need to be able to throw the ball down low to bring the perimiter d closer to the paint. He’s got the smooth jumper and rim protection, if he becomes a low post scorer this team can contend even with a lack of depth.

  13. Karlo Garcia says:

    Serge Ibaka has improved alot since his shot blocking days. Now he can make jump shots consistently

  14. OKC4Lyfe says:

    Give Steve a season to find his feet and we will have the two best shot blockers in the league. I think Serge will really up his game this season, can’t wait