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Missing Pieces: Oklahoma City's Need For Floor-Spacing Big

While Kevin Durant has been the biggest star of the locked out NBA, becoming a YouTube legend as he dominates pickup games across the country, Serge Ibaka is the Oklahoma City Thunder player worth watching this summer. Competing for Spain in EuroBasket 2011, Ibaka’s progress is crucial for the Thunder to take the next step as a team.

As he demonstrated in last year’s dunk contest, Ibaka is one of the most athletic big men in the NBA. At 6’10 235 with a 7’4 wingspan, he has the potential to be a dominant defensive force -- with the strength to defend the low post, the length to protect the rim and the foot-speed to defend on the perimeter.

In only his second season in the NBA, and still only 21-years-old, Ibaka emerged as a breakout player last year. Despite averaging only 27 minutes a game, he finished third in the league with 2.4 blocks a game. Per-36 minutes, he averaged 10.1 rebounds and 3.6 blocks. 

The next step he needs to take is on the offensive end of the floor. With a career usage rating of only 15.9, it’s unlikely Ibaka ever becomes a player a team runs offense through. But the Thunder, with their plethora of offensive weapons, don’t need another shot-creator, they need a big man who can consistently knock down a 15-20 foot jumper.

Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks received a lot of criticism for his uncreative offensive sets, but he was hamstrung by a lack of floor spacing, especially in the playoffs. Last season, Durant was the only consistent shooter in their starting line-up.

With Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha reluctant to pull the trigger from beyond the arc (each took only 1.3 three-pointers per game last year), teams were able to pack the interior of the floor. Kendrick Perkins, a 6’10 280 center, will never be confused with a perimeter threat, so that leaves Ibaka with the task of dragging his man out the paint and creating some driving lanes for Durant and Westbrook.

He wasn’t able to do that against Dallas in the Western Conference Finals, shooting 0-3 from the perimeter in the Mavericks pivotal Game 3 victory in Oklahoma City. The Thunder’s lack of floor spacing, not their playoff inexperience, was the key storyline in that series.

When Oklahoma City played two of their big men, they were unable to score consistently against Dallas. Their offense came alive in the second half of Game 2 when they went small, playing Durant at the power forward position. When they stuck with their normal line-up in Game 3, they dug themselves an almost insurmountable hole, scoring only 26 points in the first half. In the second half, when they played line-ups with only two non-shooters, they nearly came all the way back.

Their massive fourth-quarter collapse in Game 4 coincided exactly with James Harden fouling out, putting three non-shooters (Sefolosha, Collison and Ibaka) on the floor and destroying their floor spacing. In Game 5, their small line-up, with Nick Collison the only big man on the floor, controlled most of their fourth quarter, but they were undone by an inability to grab crucial defensive rebounds in the last 2:00 minutes.

A jump-shooting Serge Ibaka changes the complexion of their team completely. It gives Scott Brooks many more line-up options, and prevents him from having to choose between floor spacing and rebounding in the late stages of a playoff game.

And after improving his free throw percentage from 63% to 75% last year, it’s clear Ibaka has the potential to become a good shooter. He doesn’t have any mechanical flaws in his shot; now it’s just a matter of repetition and confidence, so that he becomes a catch-and-release shooter without hesitating.

That’s why Ibaka’s inclusion on a Spanish team that emphasizes ball movement and floor spacing had to be heartening for the Thunder. Backing up the Gasol brothers, he’s averaged only 17 minutes a game and primarily scored around the rim, but he’s shown glimpses of a more advanced floor game: smoothly knocking down perimeter jumpers on kick-outs from the Spanish guards in games against Lithuania and France.

If he can consistently make that shot, the Thunder become completely indefensible, especially if they play Kevin Durant at power forward. Of all the teams chasing Dallas for the NBA championship, they have the most realistic shot at improving through internal development without adding any more pieces.

As the EuroBasket tournament enters the knockout stage, it’s not just Thunder fans who should be keeping a close eye on Serge Ibaka.

 

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