Serge Ibaka Is Blocking His Own Evolution

Small ball may be in vogue around the NBA, but it's fools gold in the long run. Bigs like Roy Hibbert, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Tim Duncan, Joakim Noah and even LeBron James have proven that back-to-the-basket scorers are playoff gold.  The Thunder have bucked the return of back to the basket scorers with Serge Ibaka and the offensive black hole that is Kendrick Perkins.

Ibaka was supposed to develop into the Thunder's big man on the block. For the majority of his NBA career, Ibaka was able to thrive on the peripheries of the James Harden/Russell Westbrook/Kevin Durant triumvirate. Ibaka’s developed into a perennial defensive first-teamer, albeit by gambling on defense, but now that he’s been given a central role in the Oklahoma City offense, he simply hasn’t seized the opportunity..

The shot chart for Ibaka and his Memphis counterpart Z-Bo in Game 4 of the Western Conference semis was an indictment of what’s been plaguing Ibaka and his evolution.

Ibaka’s shots were finally dropping, but he was bizarrely 0-for-4 at the rim. Conversely, Z-Bo mauled the basket from the post. Those are baskets the Thunder could have used. Ibaka was so set on shooting a spot-up on one trip up the floor that he didn’t even notice the red carpet that Memphis’ defense was laying out for him. Durant did, and bounced a pass into the first row ahead of Ibaka who was caught looking for a frozen set shot instead of cutting to the lane. OKC is now in a 3-1 hole, and Ibaka’s low-post failings are a major reason for that.

Over the course of three drafts, general manager Sam Presti dipped into the draft and caught a trio of future All-Stars. Ibaka was the biggest project, looking like a 19-year-old, chiseled raw 6´10, 230-pound baby Dwight. You can crack jokes on Howard’s empty arsenal of low-post moves, but at least he utilizes his size, strength and athleticism near the basket.

Ibaka, for all his advantages, does not.

Somewhere during his development, Ibaka caught the same disease that made rappers start singing. Ibaka’s built like Howard, but he seems intent on transforming himself into the most athletic stretch-4 in the league. Perimeter shooting ability should be a complementary arrow in Ibaka’s offensive stash. Head Coach Scott Brooks calls him the best 16-foot jump shooter on the team, but that’s nothing to be proud about.

The Coming to America theme is played out, but it still gets incorrectly slapped on Ibaka. Ibaka was raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but his game was reared in Spain where the big men are taught to be jacks of all trades. Unfortunately, Ibaka’s become a master of none. During the 2012 Olympics, Ibaka was buried on the bench behind the versatile Gasol brothers.

Before the impending luxury tax armageddon forced Oklahoma City to eject Harden, Oklahoma City was rocking with the reincarnation of Golden State’s Run TMC trio. Mullin and Durant are the wing scorers, with shooting strokes sweet enough to give defenders diabetes; while Westbrook can embarrass defenders off the dribble the easy way or the Hardaway. But Harden got the Mitch Richmond treatment, after getting jettisoned to Houston.

The Warriors made the trade because Don Nelson liked Owens’ versatility, but thought he’d be more effective in the post. Unfortunately, Owens was more effective on the wing.

It’s Ibaka’s problem in reverse. Ibaka wasn’t acquired in the Harden trade, but the Thunder did choose Ibaka over Harden. Last summer, they made sure to lock down Ibaka first by inking him to a four-year, $48 million contract. However, had they known last summer that Ibaka would become allergic to the paint, they could have just retained Harden for a slightly higher tag and made Ibaka the luxury tax casualty.

In his final season with the Thunder, Harden led the league in fourth quarter free throws. This season, he led the entire league in free throw attempts per game. Conversely, Ibaka gets to the line fewer times than he should, because he doesn’t draw contact in traffic.

It didn’t help that all anyone remembered over the summer was Ibaka’s perfect shooting performance during Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Ibaka is a true big man, whom coaches inexplicably believed could play 18 feet away from the basket. Not only is that a gross misapplication of his power and strength, but it diminishes his value to Oklahoma City.

Ibaka’s development as a shooter has hindered the development of his low-post moves; but nobody within the Thunder organization seems to have any intention of planting him underneath the basket, and turning some of his reserve soccer footwork into a slew of nimble post moves.   

At this stage in his career, most of Ibaka’s post-scoring opportunities are the result of defenses collapsing onto a driving Durant or Westbrook, leaving Ibaka a lane to the basket. With Westbrook out, Ibaka’s been exposed.

According to Truehoop writer Royce Young, Ibaka only had nine games during the entire regular season where he shot less than 40 percent from the floor. He’s done that four times since Westbrook’s injury.

Memphis’ low post tag team of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol has been his kryptonite. In the Memphis-Oklahoma City series, Ibaka avoided the low post scrum at all costs. In the first three games of the series, Ibaka made 12 of 39 shots and made just three of 24 shots outside the paint.

The Gasols and Kevin Garnetts of the league can take defenders off the dribble and pull up for a little fade-away, or become magnets for defenses by creating open shot opportunities for teammates. On one of the NBA’s most offensively productive teams, Ibaka has dished out an astoundingly low 43 assists this season.

In the half court, Oklahoma City’s offense relied too heavily on hero-ball from Durant or lightning-quick Westbrook. A powerful low-post scoring threat would balance the offense out.

“Serge, he definitely can improve,” Brooks told The Oklahoman. “He’s one of the best face-up shooters. But if he can develop a consistent low-post game, it’s going to help all of us.”

During the summer of 2011, after watching his jumper consistently hit iron in the Finals, LeBron James sought out Scott Brooks’ former Houston Rockets teammate Hakeem Olajuwon. “The Dream” has become the Mr. Miyagi of big-man coaches, and advised James on how to throw some post game skills into his repertoire.

“He told me he has played basketball all his life,” Olajuwon recalled to the Sun-Sentinel last September. “Facing the basket, shooting threes, this and that, but to complete his game, he needed to get inside.”

The result of his work with Olajuwon helped James bring forth the most efficient MVP season in league history. Last summer, Olajuwon offered to become Ibaka’s low-post sensei. Between the Olympics and the Thunder’s Finals appearance, that never came to fruition. Thanks in part to Ibaka’s shooting woes this postseason, and the likelihood that OKC won’t get past Memphis, he’ll have an excess of free time this summer. You can’t teach size, but you can teach post-moves. Now, it’s on Ibaka to learn.


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