May 31, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Derek Fisher (6) and forward Serge Ibaka (9) congratulate forward Kevin Durant (35) celebrate as they head to the bench for a time out against the San Antonio Spurs in game six of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma City Thunder: Appreciating Serge Ibaka

In sports, we often get caught up in the midst of competition. We dwell over all the little negative details of a team or player’s game.

It is the society we live. We are first to criticize and often last to praise. Sometimes it is best to just take a step back and appreciate a player.

Serge Ibaka was a little known commodity when the Oklahoma City Thunder (then Seattle SuperSonics) selected him with the No. 24 overall pick in the 2008 draft. The Thunder were already building a solid core, having selected a superstar in the making in Kevin Durant the year before and grabbing a dynamic guard in Russell Westbrook earlier in the 2008 draft.

But who was this Ibaka kid from the Republic of Congo?

Ibaka was seen as a freak athlete who had a high upside, but was still raw. It often becomes hit-or-miss once you get out of the lottery when selecting players, but the Thunder hit a grand slam with the No.  24 pick in the 2008 draft.

Ibaka has blossomed into one of the best two-way players in the entire league. He can change an entire game on the defense end while also scoring 20 points. There are very few players in the league who can effect a game like Ibaka.

Nov 1, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka (9) looks to block a shot by Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Alexey Shved (1) in the second quarter at Target Center. Timberwolves won 100-81. Mandatory Credit: Greg Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Ibaka took no time becoming a defensive force in the NBA. He led the league in total blocks his second year in the NBA and has led the league every year since.

He has 997 total blocks in five years. His shot blocking prowess makes him an instant factor every time he steps on the floor.

For as many shots he has blocked over his young career, he has probably altered just as many. I mean look at this sequence against the Spurs last season.

Ibaka comes over for weak side help to block Tim Duncan, quickly recovers and contests both layups, resulting in Tiago Splitter and Duncan missing two bunnies.

There are very few other guys in the league who can have a defensive sequence such as that.

Make no mistake, Ibaka was not a perfect defender when he came into the league. He often found himself out of his position on defense, tried to block everything, and did not provide correct help all the time.

However, Ibaka has gotten significantly better in all of those areas. He is the anchor of what has been a top-six defense the last two years and his improvements in all those areas is a reason why the Thunder have been so good defensively.

Here is another example of why Ibaka is one of the best and most versatile defenders in the league. This sequence is more impressive than the last.

Chris Paul gets penetration down the middle of the lane and on most defenders would attack the rim or shoot a runner. Except, Ibaka is mounted in the lane and is going to make Paul make a decision.

Early in his career Ibaka would have gone at Paul overaggressively and found himself out of his position. But 2014 Ibaka is so good he stunts at Paul, freezing him and forcing a dump off to DeAndre Jordan.

Jordan, one of the most powerful big men in the league, is then met at the rim by Ibaka. That’s extremely good defense.

Both clips have been Ibaka blocks that end up in the possession of someone on the Thunder. That’s just what he does.

According to nbawowy.com, 68.1 percent of Ibaka’s blocks last season were rebounded by the Thunder. That means nearly 150 of Ibaka’s 219 blocks were gathered by the Thunder.

To put that into perspective, Anthony Davis and Jordan, two of the top shot blockers and defenders in the league had 62.1 percent and 57.2 percent of their blocks rebounded by their own team, respectively.

Ibaka’s ability to keep his blocks in play and even place them near teammates makes his shot blocking even more valuable. It can spark a fast break, and with two of the best fast break options in the league in Westbrook and Durant, an Ibaka block can be a transition igniter.

Ibaka’s versatility and athleticism also allows the Thunder to go small when they choose to and put Ibaka at center. While Durant may have a tough time guarding some big men, Ibaka can cover so much ground and is such a good help defender he can often protect the rim if Durant gets beat on the block.

See this:

And this:

Both Marcin Gortat and David Lee think they have the easy mismatch with Durant on them, but Ibaka comes over and erases two scores. The Thunder can have more firepower on offense with Durant at the 4 and Ibaka at the 5 and Ibaka’s defensive ability allows them to do that.

Speaking of offense, Ibaka is no slouch on the other end of the floor.

He is by no means a really good overall offensive player. He rarely creates his own shot or puts the ball on the floor.

However, he is really good at a few offensive things and that is all the Thunder need from him.

Ibaka takes a lot of pressure of Durant and Westbrook. He does it with his mid-range jumpshot. According the Grantland, he was the best mid-range shooter in the whole league for the 2012-13 season at 49.4 percent.

It is quite an impressive number compared to where he was in 2010. For the 2010-11 season Ibaka shot 42.3 percent from 10 feet to the 3-point line. This season he shot 47.4 percent.

Serge Ibaka 2010-11 shotchart, via NBA.com

Serge Ibaka 2010-11 shotchart, via NBA.com

Above is his 2010-11 shotchart. Here is this season’s. Green is good.

Serge Ibaka's 2013-14 shotchart, via NBA.com

Serge Ibaka’s 2013-14 shotchart, via NBA.com

The biggest difference is how much Ibaka has expanded his game over the years. He shot six 3-pointers in his first three years compared to 117 over the last two seasons. Ibaka has worked relentlessly to improve his offensive game and it has paid dividends.

His ability knock down the mid-range jump shot has made defenses really make a decision on what to do defensively. Teams can’t let Durant and Westbrook have a full head of steam off a pick and roll, but they also have to respect Ibaka’s jumper.

Because of that the Thunder get this a lot:

The Thunder also really like to put Westbrook or Durant in the post and have Ibaka opposite of them. This makes it tough for defenses to shade towards the post player.

If they do, Durant and Westbrook are really good at looking crosscourt for Ibaka.

Zach Randolph, who is guarding Ibaka, is shading towards Westbrook to help, but knowing how good of a shooter Ibaka is, Westbrook whips the ball across court for an easy jumper.

Ibaka’s mid-range shooting ability also pulls a defender away from the basket, clearing the way for two dynamic scorers in Westbrook and Durant to get to the bucket. Durant shoots 8 percent better from zero to three feet when Ibaka is on the floor compared to when he is not, according to nbawowy.com.

When Ibaka is on the floor there is usually not another big body around the rim, making it easier for Durant to score around the basket. The Ibaka effect is real.

Now that Ibaka is beginning to knock down the corner 3 it is going to open up the floor even more for the Thunder. It will also make opposing defenses pick their poison when defending the Thunder.

In both of these instances, the defenses decide to cut off the ball handler and force a kick out to Ibaka in the corner.

If Ibaka can begin to shoot around 38 percent from the corners, which is not unlikely, the Thunder will be even harder to guard.

Ibaka is not the Thunder’s best player, but the impact he has on both ends of the floor makes him irreplaceable. We saw that in the Western Conference Finals this season against the Spurs.

Ibaka missed the first two games and the Spurs picked apart the Thunder defense and the the Thunder offense stalled.

In those first two games the Spurs scored 124.9 points per 100 possessions compared to the Thunder’s 97. Ibaka came back in Game 3 and over the next two games, the tides flipped. The Thunder scored 112.5 points per 100 possessions while the Spurs scored 100.7 in Games 3 and 4.

Ibaka wore out over the last two games of the series, but we all saw just how important Ibaka is to the Thunder’s success.

So put aside the fact that the Thunder can’t get over the hump and win an NBA championship and appreciate the No. 24 pick of the 2008 Draft from the Republic of Congo. He is really good.

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Tags: Oklahoma City Thunder Serge Ibaka

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