Many people questioned if the Oklahoma City Thunder were making a bad call by trading James Harden just before the season began, thus showing their commitment to Serge Ibaka.
There’s no denying that Harden has been great for the Houston Rockets. But with the player that Ibaka has become this season, it’s hard to imagine Oklahoma City feeling any regret over their decision.
Ibaka dominate on both ends of the floor on Wednesday night as the Thunder steam-rolled the Golden State Warriors, 119-98. The fourth-year forward netted 15 points, nine rebounds, four assists and an authoritative six blocks, as well as shooting 70 percent from the floor, in the contest.
Through the first three years of his career, he was largely defined by his athleticism and shot-blocking ability. That seemed to be his role. That’s also why no one expected him to be so potent offensively this season.
But in the first week of the season, it became extremely clear that Ibaka had busted his tail in the offseason to become a better rebounder and to polish his offensive game up, particularly his mid-range jump-shot. He burned countless defenders in the opening weeks of the year that would play off of him, not expecting him to pull up and shoot.
His work is paying huge dividends, too. After never averaging double-digit points and over eight rebounds per game in any of his first three seasons, Ibaka is currently averaging 13.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.
To put how much he’s increased his scoring into perspective, he’s scored 633 total points this season in 46 games played. In the 66 games he played last season, he only scored 603 total points. That’s pretty crazy.
His blocks per game have slipped from 3.7 last season to 2.8 this year. However, he still averages the second most in the NBA. The slip in blocks is somewhat of an anomaly, too. He’s still contesting shots and defending at an elite level. He’s just getting a hand on fewer shots.
As proof that he’s still playing great defense, he was matched up with David Lee, an All-Star averaging 19.4 points and 11 rebounds per game and shooting 51.8 percent from the field on the year.
In Lee’s matchup against Ibaka though, he still grabbed 11 boards, but committed four turnovers and scored only 12 points on 38.5 percent shooting. That’s what Ibaka has always added to Oklahoma City defensively: he makes good opponents look mediocre and mediocre opponents look like they don’t belong in the Association.
But as he continues to merge as an offensive presence this season, he makes the Thunder, the Western Conference Champions from a year ago, exponentially better.
With Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant being their primary scoring threats, with Harden coming off the bench, over the past three years, the majority of Oklahoma City’s offense has been oriented around perimeter scoring.
Now, that has all changed. Ibaka allows the Thunder to have a viable low-post scoring threat that can also stretch the floor. Not only does that allow for them to score more on the interior, but it also opens up the inside-out game for OKC.
Ibaka’s development as a more effective rebounder and more versatile scorer wasn’t really expected and possibly wasn’t even necessary. But now that it’s happened, the Thunder seem to have bought a one-way ticket back to the NBA Finals.