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Thunder may be looking for Serge Ibaka to emerge as team’s third scoring option

Oct 10, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT

Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant AP

It’s easy to argue that the Thunder got worse this summer by losing Kevin Martin to the Timberwolves in free agency, and getting nothing in return to replace his offensive production in the lineup.

For a slide to be avoided, Kevin Durant is going to have to raise his game to an even higher level, especially during the first couple of months of the season while Russell Westbrook is recovering from a second knee surgery.

Young guys like Reggie Jackson will have to continue to develop as well, but the team is hoping to see a leap from its best defensive player to help bridge the gap on the other end of the floor.

From Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:

Entering his fifth season, the first of his contentious four-year, $49 million extension, Ibaka must now take on the role of third scoring option. More than that, it’s time he also blossoms into the Thunder’s best post defender. Oklahoma City’s championship hopes might depend on it.

Harden is long gone, and Kevin Martin walked this summer. That leaves Ibaka as one of the few remaining players the Thunder can count on to complement Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Everyone else outside of Reggie Jackson is either a defensive specialist or a big fat question mark.

“He has to continue to have an impact on the game,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of Ibaka.

The thing is, Ibaka wasn’t that far off statistically from being that third option last season.

The drop off from Durant and Westbrook to Martin was substantial, but Martin’s 14 points per game average was followed closely by Ibaka’s 13.2, and Serge played more minutes to get there.

It’s pointed out in the article that Ibaka’s per-36 numbers approach 16 points and 10 rebounds per game, which would be reasonable for him to achieve if he’s given an expanded role this season. But that’s only a marginal improvement from last year’s averages, and it won’t be enough to replace Martin’s production, hot-and-cold as it may have been.

For Oklahoma City to play deep into the postseason, they’ll need Durant and Westbrook to be greater than usual, they’ll need Ibaka to improve by averaging the numbers projected or beyond, and they’ll need some of the young guys to develop and contribute ahead of schedule.

It seems like an awful lot to ask.

  1. kb2408 - Oct 10, 2013 at 8:21 AM

    Agree completely. The Thunder gave up Martin, the player they brought in replace Harden. It seems like the trade of Harden has led to the franchise getting progressively worse. I still say if they had to deal one of their four young studs for financial reasons, they should’ve moved Serge or Westbrook and not Harden. Reggio Jackson is a pretty good PG who could’ve been their starter and Serge is probably going to be a 15 & 10 player his whole career. It’s easier to find players like him than it is to find a player like Harden.

    • antistratfordian - Oct 10, 2013 at 2:17 PM

      “‘The easiest player to find is the shooting guard,’ says Bullet General Manager Bob Ferry, ‘but try to find one who is willing to give it up on the break.'” -SI, Oct 15, 1979

      Ibaka is not only a 1st Team All-Defensive player two years in a row, he not only led the league in blocks two years in a row, he not only blocks a higher percentage of his opponents shots than anyone since Manute Bol, but he is also one of the *best shooters in the league. That’s pretty difficult to find.

      In any case, they already have KD and Westbrook – so they can easily justify the rationale behind keeping the best defensive player on the team over the third best scorer on the team.

      *http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9795591/kirk-goldsberry-introduces-new-way-understand-nba-best-scorers

      • spursareold - Oct 10, 2013 at 4:15 PM

        It’s easly to find a garden variety SG, but not an All NBA one.

        I would have kept Serge, but traded Westbrook.

      • antistratfordian - Oct 10, 2013 at 4:25 PM

        Yes, I think a better argument in hindsight is Westbrook vs Harden. At the time though that simply wasn’t an option.

        If they let Serge go their defense would’ve been severely compromised and the talk would’ve been something like, “How can you let your best defensive player go just to keep a 3rd scorer!!?? No one ever said scorers win championships. DEFENSE wins championships!”

      • spursareold - Oct 10, 2013 at 4:16 PM

        ..or amnestied Perk.

      • bougin89 - Oct 10, 2013 at 5:02 PM

        I agree with your opinion on this one Antistratfordian so view this as a hypothetical question I’m just throwing out there.

        If you’re the Thunder do you keep Harden even if it meant you’d have to dump a few very manageable contracts valuable players are on like Sefalosha and Nick Collison and amnesty Perkins(Perkins is a no-brainer)?

        I know I’d do everything to keep that big 4 together. Rarely do you get a team loaded with so much elite, young talent just entering their primes like they had.

      • antistratfordian - Oct 10, 2013 at 5:21 PM

        Short answer: Yes. You hit the nail on the head.

      • zoomy123 - Oct 10, 2013 at 5:58 PM

        This isn’t nearly as hard as people are making it out to be. If your choice is between Ibaka or Harden, you flipping dump Ibaka. Period. If you need evidence for this look no further than Miami. Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra are geniuses; their philosophy was simple: We’re going to put the best players on the floor irrespective of their weaknesses. We’ll get outrebounded and we’ll have a soft frontline, but talent, getting the right complimentary players, and great coaching will prevail in the end. And it has. Harden will be the BEST SG in the NBA for the next 5-10 years, and what do you get in return? A dime a dozen low post defensive specialist, who can’t create his own shot, has no low post offense, and averages less rebounds than Kevin Durant?! Nonsense.

      • antistratfordian - Oct 11, 2013 at 11:13 PM

        I’d argue that a Serge Ibaka is more rare than a James Harden. His skill set is definitely more rare. Ibaka is easily the best shooting shot blocker in the league and he may be the best shooting shot blocker in history. Harden is the best at nothing and he doesn’t play defense. Him being “the BEST SG in the NBA for the next 5-10 years” has little value if he doesn’t start defending somebody.

        Finding more scoring is easy. Kevin Martin, Reggie Jackson, whoever. Scoring is easy to find because there is no shortage of wannabe Michael Jordans in the world. Finding someone who can come in and be the best shot blocker in the league though… good luck with that.

        The Heat work ultimately because LeBron, Wade and Bosh all play defense. Durant, Russell and Harden would just be a bunch of redundant scorers with nobody playing D. Now why would that make sense? You must keep your best defensive players.

        (Durant gets more rebounds than Ibaka for some of the same reasons that LeBron gets more rebounds than Bosh. Ibaka and Bosh are used to spread the floor for Durant/Westbrook and LeBron/Wade – and they can do that because Ibaka and Bosh are both real weapons from outside.)

      • zoomy123 - Oct 14, 2013 at 1:43 PM

        Whether or not Ibaka’s skillset is more rare than Harden’s is absolutely irrelevant to my overall point, even if it’s true. And saying that Harden is not the best at anything is also irrelevant. Roy Hibbert has the best low-post game of any center in the NBA, but that doesn’t make him the best all-around center or even the best center. Being the best at 1 thing doesn’t make you the best at that position. Harden is the BEST all around 2 guard in the game right now: Wade is perpetually injured and Kobe is a VOLUME scorer, like he’s always been, and his defensive rating was worse than Harden’s last year. Plus, the idea that Harden can’t play defense is hyperbolic. His defensive rating was 106 (last year it was 105); not bad for a person who went from starting 7 games in 3 years to starting 78 in a single season and playing more than 1,000 more minutes than he did the previous season.

        Also, your claims about Westbrook and Durant not playing defense are not borne out by the evidence. Kevin Durant, for instance, played 38.5 mpg, had a 50-40-90 season, averaged 28 ppg, and had an offensive rating of 122. His defensive rating? 100! That’s amazing. And his defensive rating actually DECREASED from last season’s 101. And Westbrook’s defensive rating has improved almost every season from 111 as a rookie to 103 last season. So, contrary to your claims, OKC could have had a nice offensive AND defensive core if they worked on their team-defense chemistry and continued to polish their defensive skills individually. Just like Miami did…

        My overall point was this: defensive specialists, even if they are the “best” shooting shot blocker of all time, do NOT win championships. This was proven when Ibaka’s game was completely exposed as a house of cards in last season’s playoffs. History tells us that getting rid of an All-NBA 2 guard for a shot blocker is NOT a good trade off. OKC could have had a RARE 3-headed monster with Durant, Westbrook and Harden. Riley and Spoelstra have already PROVEN that what creates championships is putting your BEST (two-way) players on the floor and challenging them to be a better TEAM. But also giving them the right complimentary players and the right coaching. I seriously can’t imagine how you could justify taking Ibaka over Harden.

      • antistratfordian - Oct 14, 2013 at 8:27 PM

        Harden is the BEST all around 2 guard in the game right now: Wade is perpetually injured and Kobe is a VOLUME scorer

        James Harden is not a great “all-around” player because he doesn’t play defense. So you’re wrong on that point. In terms of “all-around” James Harden cannot yet compete with Wade who is a genuinely good defender – which is why he has 3 rings.

        [Durant's] defensive rating? 100! That’s amazing.

        Defensive Rating is not an accurate measure of individual defensive ability. Defensive Rating can only take into account “stops” currently measured in the box score (blocks, steals, defensive rebounds) while only estimating forced turnovers and forced misses (these are not tracked). The problem with estimating forced misses is it’s based only on opponent makes and misses – Durant’s estimated “forced misses” will be inflated playing next to Ibaka who alters and rejects more shots than anyone else in the league.

        So Durant has a Defensive Rating of 100 primarily because of two reasons 1) he plays in front of Ibaka and 2) because he grabbed over 7 defensive rebounds a game (a major metric for DRtg but not necessarily indicative of a good defender). It’s nearly the same reason why Carlos Boozer (a notoriously bad defender) also had a Defensive Rating of 100 – playing next to Noah – or on a good defense that hides him well (which would artificially inflate his estimated “forced misses”) – and grabbing 7.5 defensive boards a game.

        There is no current defensive statistic that can, by itself, accurately measure the defensive impact of any player. The new SportsVU system will allow us to better gauge who the best defenders in the league are. As it stands right now Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are not good defenders.

        History tells us that getting rid of an All-NBA 2 guard for a shot blocker is NOT a good trade off

        No, history tells us that if you have 3 scoring champion wannabes and no defenders you might not even make it out of the first round. Though I guess you’ll need all the scorers you can get when you’re down double digits all the time.

        Riley and Spoelstra have already PROVEN that what creates championships is putting your BEST (two-way) players on the floor and challenging them to be a better TEAM.

        The Heat win because the have 3 players who are good both offensively and defensively and another set of guys who are good defenders who can drop 20 on you if you’re not careful. They can win a Game 7 in the finals with Bosh playing 30 minutes and not scoring a single point because he contributes defensively.

        If James Harden wasn’t scoring for the Thunder he was just about useless.

        In any case, the Thunder’s best two-way player (offense and defense) has been Serge Ibaka.

      • zoomy123 - Oct 14, 2013 at 11:58 PM

        First, on what grounds do you claim that James Harden “doesn’t play defense”? If you’re arguing that defensive rating is not an adequate formula for assessing the defensive proficiency of a player, then you need to give some metrics or method for evaluating a player’s defensive profiency. So far all you’ve done is claim that this or that player either does or does not play defense. I don’t care about what you claim to be the case, I care about evidence; and so far you haven’t provided any.

        Second, Dwyane Wade doesn’t have 3 rings because he plays defense, LOL. What kind of revisionist history is this? Wade has 3 rings because he averaged 39.25 ppg and was clutch during the 4th quarter in the last 4 games of the 2006 NBA Finals and he teamed up with Chris Bosh and LBJ (who just carried him to his 3rd ring).

        Third, this: “Durant’s estimated ‘forced misses’ will be inflated playing next to Ibaka who alters and rejects more shots than anyone else in the league” is, at best, speculative and, at worst, nonsensical. In order for this to make sense you’d have to prove that Ibaka actually alters or rejects the shots of players that KD is guarding and, therefore, contributes significantly to KD’s “forced misses”. Moreover, in the formula for defensive rating defensive rebounding doesn’t actually count for that much; it’s just one factor amongst many others.

        Fourth, you’re contradicting yourself. You claimed, “There is no current defensive statistic that can, by itself, accurately measure the defensive impact of any player,” but by downplaying a player’s defensive rating you’re really saying, “Defensive statistics are flawed so they can’t help us gauge the defensive impact of a player at all.” And, if this is what you’re really saying, then, again, what metrics or methods are you using to assess the defensive impact of a player? Again, Just claiming that, “As it stands right now Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are not good defenders” is useless. You can’t have it both ways: you can’t, on the one hand, discount defensive statistics and, on the other, continue to assert that some players are better defenders than others without having the requisite evidence to support your claims.

        Fifth, “history tells us that if you have 3 scoring champion wannabes and no defenders you might not even make it out of the first round”? LOLOL! You mean like when OKC didn’t make it out of the first round in 2012? Oh wait…

        In any event, this discussion has gotten way out of hand and you never addressed my overall point, which is this: Ibaka will not win you championships. There’s no precedent in NBA history where a shot-blocking defensive specialist who can’t create his own offense will help you win a championship more than an All-NBA 2 guard. History is replete with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, etc. and yet there’s NO analogue for Serge Ibaka. Again, I haven’t seen a coherent justification for taking Ibaka over Harden.

      • antistratfordian - Oct 16, 2013 at 7:39 PM

        I’m not going to keep going round-n-round with you on this. Harden, Durant and Westbrook are not good defenders. Average on their best day.

        The Thunder cannot compete for a title without Ibaka’s defense (or the equivalent).

      • kb2408 - Oct 10, 2013 at 7:14 PM

        I think Serge is a bit overrated as a defender. Blocking shots does not make one a great defender. That’s just part of it. A great defender is Kevin Garnett in his prime. Serge ain’t a young Garnett.

      • antistratfordian - Oct 10, 2013 at 7:51 PM

        Nevertheless, our beloved head coaches voted him All-Defense First Team twice.

        And aren’t All-Defensive selections what Kobe fans use to defend him against accusations of being an overrated defender?

        Ibaka at least has some defensive accomplishments he can trumpet – he joined Dikembe Mutombo as the only two players in history to lead the league in total blocks three consecutive years. And he’s only 24.

      • kb2408 - Oct 10, 2013 at 8:28 PM

        Unlike Kobe, I’ve never once seen Serge take the opposition’s best player and shut him down. Kobe was a great defender when he was younger.

      • antistratfordian - Oct 10, 2013 at 9:12 PM

        Kobe stopped being a good defender over a decade ago. Phil Jackson agrees with me. And Jackson wrote that the Lakers lost the only defensive leader they had when Ron Harper retired in 2001, so he was really excited to get Gary Payton for that reason in 2004.

        But this isn’t about Kobe.

        Serge deserves some praise. Since his rookie year he has more 10 block games than anyone else in the league. No one else has more than 1. He has more than twice as many 8 block games than the next guy (Dwight Howard). He has almost three times as many 6 block games than the next guy (Dwight Howard).

        Now, I don’t care who you are, if you get 6-10 blocks in a game you were defending exceptionally well.

  2. stephenolszewski - Oct 10, 2013 at 10:31 AM

    They’ve been waiting for that since Jeff Green was traded..

  3. xLith - Oct 10, 2013 at 11:30 AM

    Thanks for Harden by the way!

  4. ProBasketballPundit - Oct 10, 2013 at 12:25 PM

    Serge Ibaka is an extremely efficient scorer from inside and out. Just read a Kirk Goldsberry article about it; problem is that forcing him to take more shots means he’ll be less efficient. I think the Thunder’s problem is better dealt with by incorporating an offensive scheme of constant screening and passing. They play way too much isolation for a supposed elite team.

  5. thundersandpackers - Oct 10, 2013 at 1:00 PM

    Harden was leaving no matter what. No one knew Reggie was going to play this good. Thunders have to play PJ3 and especially Lamb this year.

    • kb2408 - Oct 10, 2013 at 7:11 PM

      I guess it’s possible he was leaving anyway but he doesn’t strike me as a guy that has to have the whole spotlight shining on him. Harden recruited the heck out of Dwight knowing he would have to share the spotlight. I think he would’ve been ok being 6 man of the year and competing for titles in Okc.

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