After trading away James Harden before the start of the 2012-2013 NBA season, there were a lot of people that were worried about the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder didn’t miss a beat, though, posting the best record in the Western Conference. A lot of their sustained success was due to the play of Kevin Martin, but Serge Ibaka’s improvement was also vital.
One of the big things that Ibaka gave to OKC last season was a much improved offensive game. He averaged 13.2 points per game while shooting 57.3 percent from the field, both of which were career-highs. Ibaka showed off a relatively solid jump shot and a developing post game.
The perception that has developed about Ibaka over his four-year career is that he’s a defensive stalwart who, if he developed his offensive game, could potentially be a star in this league. His offense still has a way to go, but the dirty secret is that his defense does as well.
There’s absolutely no question that Ibaka is a fantastic athlete and rim-defender. Him averaging 2.6 blocks per game for his career and three blocks per game last season is not a fluke by any stretch. However, his overall defensive game isn’t as great as the public perception might make you think it is.
Overall last season, Ibaka allowed 0.89 points per possession, just the 256th best mark in the league last season. I’d be willing to bet that’s way worse than you expected. Probably his biggest problem area last season was defending spot-up shots run at him, as he allowed 1.03 points per possession in those sets, the 253rd worst mark in the NBA.
Ibaka may be a great rim-protector, but he’s not exceptionally quick or savvy with his footwork and rotations on the defensive end. Outside of blocking shots, he really doesn’t do anything exceptionally well on defense. With the league moving towards small-ball lineups that play stretch-fours, that puts Ibaka at a noticeable disadvantage.
Ibaka is far from being a problem on defense, but he’s also far from the defender people think that he is. If he wants to further develop into a star and wants to help the Thunder validate keeping him over Harden, he needs to develop his defensive game as well as his offensive game. If not, he’s never going to reach his maximum potential.