The Oklahoma City Thunder had a tough decision to make before the 2012-13 season.
Do they extend James Harden for a big contract (possibly the max) and then move Serge Ibaka to balance the finances or do they move Harden (a franchise player in the making) and keep Ibaka to balance out the attack? This was a team that went to the NBA Finals just months before and breaking up such a dynamic and soon to be expensive core was going to be a hard sell for fans and NBA pundits.
The Thunder elected to trade Harden right before the season, keep Ibaka as the third banana, and develop a young bench to make up for the loss of one of the top scorers in the NBA. The development was going to be the most important part. They needed to turn Jeremy Lamb from a summer league player to a guy that could handle a big role. They needed Reggie Jackson to get comfortable initiating offense in the Harden role. They needed to hit on the upcoming pick they'd get from the deal.
They also needed Ibaka to make the leap on both ends of the floor. The offensive side of the court wasn't a huge deal, but an increased role needed to be met with solid efficiency. The majority of his improvement needed to be on the defensive end of the floor. It sounds weird to think that the guy who finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2011-12 and third in the voting for the same award in 2012-13 needed improvement. However, the Thunder needed Ibaka to be more sound on defense, a better position defender, and not so jumpy at the sight of a potential block.
Ibaka's been a really good defender for three seasons now. It's not just because of the flashy block numbers either. He's a presence on the court that changes the way an offense attacks. The problem is he wasn't one of the three best defenders as the DPOY voting indicated and this caused many fans and pundits to exclaim how overrated Ibaka was/is. This season, it's hard to find many defenders better than Ibaka and it could be the great equalizer in the West.
Obviously, the Thunder are dangerous because Kevin Durant stalks the opponent like a predator with sinister intentions. If they can get Russell Westbrook back into the lineup and healthy, they'll have two of the 10 best players in the world leading the offensive attack. But that will only get them so far in the West with so many of the elite teams possessing top power forwards.
Where Ibaka's biggest impact will be felt is anchoring the third best defense in the NBA. They have a good system and guys that buy in no matter who is on the court. With Ibaka on the floor, the Thunder give up 99.0 points per 100 possessions. When Ibaka is on the bench, that number barely increases by ticking up to 99.5. His biggest impact will be the security the Thunder have in knowing they can single cover the top big man of whatever opponent comes their way.
This season, Ibaka has been a big deterrent to the best big men in the West.
After four games against the Portland Trail Blazers, he's spent 128 minutes on the floor against LaMarcus Aldridge and only been out of the game for 23 total minutes in which Aldridge is on the floor. Aldridge has been in the MVP discussion all season long, averaging 23.9 points on 46.6 percent shooting. Against the Thunder, Aldridge is averaging 26.0 points with 21.2 coming when Ibaka is on the floor. He's shooting drops to 42.9 percent with Ibaka on the floor, 53.3 percent with Ibaka out of the game.
Ibaka is long enough to threaten altering the shot on Aldridge's impossible-to-block jumper. He's strong enough to keep Aldridge from getting deep position and he can help challenge Aldridge when he has the ball inside (39.1 percent against defense with Ibaka). If the Thunder face the Blazers in the second round, they can feel confident knowing they have a guy to disrupt the rhythm of an MVP candidate.
That's the trend with the rest of the power bigs in the conference.
In three games against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Thunder have stifled Zach Randolph, who is averaging 17.7 points on 37.5 percent. He's shooting 44.4 percent in the 16 minutes in which Ibaka isn't in the game and that percentage plummets to 35.9 percent with Ibaka on the court. Randolph's strength isn't as effective against Ibaka because of his matching strength, length, and athleticism. Memphis getting to the 8-seed and a possible showdown with the Thunder could lead to a quick exit.
If the Thunder meet the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, Dirk Nowitzki struggled in his only matchup with Ibaka. He's shooting 40.0 percent with Ibaka on the floor, but looking at the matchup last year shows Nowitzki struggled more then. In four games against the Thunder last season, Nowitzki made just 34.8 percent of his shots with Ibaka on the floor.
If the Minnesota Timberwolves get their act together and make the playoffs, Kevin Love may find a very hard time getting good shots against Ibaka. In three games this season, Love has shredded the Thunder with Ibaka on the bench, making 71.4 percent of his shots. He's scoring 30 of his 70 points in the 20 minutes with Ibaka off the floor. In the 85 minutes with Ibaka in the game, Love's percentage drops to 36.4 percent, nearly half of what he's shooting without Ibaka there.
Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers is the one guy that seems to have solid success this season against Ibaka. He's made 50.0 percent of his shots in two games with Ibaka on the court. That number was 54.1 percent against Ibaka-led defenses in three games last season. A second round matchup against the Clippers may be the only time Ibaka isn't able to make the opposing power forward struggle to score.
This is what Ibaka has become. He's as close to a lockdown defender against the top power forwards in the league as you can get. He's not jumping so much at pump fakes. He does not need to rotate as much from the weak side because his positioning before the initial attack is much improved. He's guarding the pick-and-roll about as well as you can expect someone to do with the defensive responsibilities that he has.
It's going to be hard enough to deal with this super version of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook (fingers crossed), and the rest of the role players who have developed beautifully in this Thunder organization. Knowing your best big man may not have an advantage in his matchup against Ibaka makes this road through Oklahoma City even tougher.
The decision Sam Presti made before 2012-13 in shaping the future of this team has turned out to be the right one.