When Russell Westbrook went down in the playoffs last season, the onus was on Serge Ibaka to step up and help replace some of Westbrook's scoring impact. Other guys like Kevin Martin, Reggie Jackson, and of course Kevin Durant were also responsible, but Ibaka was the one who had to make the most dramatic change to his approach on offense. He's always been reliant on others to create his shots, whether through pick-and-pop plays or by spotting up while Durant and Westbrook went to work.
With Westbrook, one of the Thunder's primary shot-creators, out for the rest of the playoffs, Ibaka suddenly had one of the foundational supports for his offensive game wiped out while simultaneously facing greater expectations in light of the big hole in production left behind by Westbrook. Therefore, it wasn't that surprising when Ibaka struggled without Westbrook. In fact, he struggled to the point of regression. Even as his field goal attempts per game inflated from 9.7 in the regular season to 13.1 in the playoffs, Ibaka slipped from averaging 13.2 points in the regular season (with a runaway career high True Shooting Percentage of 61.2%) to 12.4 points on a 44.5% TSP after Westbrook's injury.
The light was placed on Ibaka's inability to create shots for himself, normally a non-factor when he plays alongside Durant and Westbrook. However, Ibaka really couldn't score off the dribble or from the post consistently. This led to his confidence going down elsewhere, even on open catch-and-shoot jumpers from midrange that he normally drains with, well, confidence. When opponents started to double-team and triple-team KD, Ibaka couldn't quite make them pay for it.
So, with Westbrook expected to miss the first 4-6 weeks of the regular season and Kevin Martin in Minnesota via free agency, Ibaka was once again faced with the responsibility of being able to produce some of his own offense for the Thunder. He had all of the offseason to work on improving something that was so clearly a flaw in the postseason, and would be important even after Westbrook's return because of K-Mart's departure.
Westbrook did come back much earlier than anybody could've anticipated, so the need for Ibaka to operate on his own was reduced significantly. However, if you try and picture what the Thunder would look like had Westbrook stayed on his original timetable to return, things would probably be a lot less sunny than the 12-3 record the Thunder have right now. Why? Because unless Ibaka is hiding some hitherto unrevealed shot-creating skills, he really hasn't shown that he's taken a step forward in his ability to create a good shot with the ball in his hands.
Right now, just 22.1% of Ibaka's made field goals this season have gone unassisted. This is actually down from last season, where 24.4% of Ibaka's makes were unassisted. For comparison, noted spot-up shooter Chris Bosh had just 23.3% of his made field goals unassisted upon.
Even if you take a concentrated, shot-by-shot look at Ibaka's 21 unassisted field goals this season, there really isn't much to glean about Ibaka's ability to create his own shot. 14 of those makes came off of an Ibaka offensive rebound (and we've always known Ibaka to be a good offensive rebounder, though that's not the point here), and another one came after Ibaka found himself open after picking up a loose ball poked away from Kevin Durant. That leaves us with six made field goals to analyze Ibaka with, an extremely small sample size.
But screw it, let's do it anyways.
Of those six Ibaka makes, four came from post-up situations. Two on the low block, two in the short corner/extended post area. He took one post fadeaway, one face-up jab jumper and two hook shots. Even before the regular season, Ibaka looked like he was beginning to build a bit of a post game. In the preseason (which is as good a time as ever for established NBA players to get experimental), he flashed a handful of very appealing post fadeaways and low-block hook shots. It isn't something we've seen too much this season yet, but post-ups are one way Ibaka could establish an identity for himself. Perhaps the most tantalizing look at Ibaka in the post this season came against the Bucks on November 16th, when he displayed a few ball-fakes and strong footwork en route to a relatively easy hook shot (unfortunately, this might be the only time he's displayed these moves so far in this season).
While post-ups are, for the most part, a relatively inefficient way of scoring the basketball, it does give the Thunder a big man that they can put in the post and threaten to use against the defense. They really haven't had a big man impactful as a low-post scoring threat since their days in Seattle. If Ibaka ever becomes a proven low-post scorer, something as simple as flashing him across the paint to the low block to draw the defense's attention could consistently lead to a shot opportunity elsewhere.
Ibaka's other two unassisted makes came off of drives to the rim, with one being a turnaround hook shot in the middle and the other being a turnaround jumper after the ball was poked away from him. It feels like there was a bit of flukiness to the latter (not only did Ibaka have to recover the ball after it was poked loose, but his shot was pretty well contested too), so let's look at the former. Coincidentally, it also came against the Bucks.
In the end, that wasn't a great shot. The turnaround hook shot from 10 feet out will never be an easy shot, and it was decently challenged by Ekpe Udoh with about five seconds left in the shot clock. But, there are a couple small things to like here. The first one is when Ibaka gets the ball after the pick-and-pop with Andre Roberson. There's pretty significant space between him and Udoh, but as soon as Ibaka pump fakes, Udoh closes out. Ibaka is primarily a threat for his ability to catch-and-shoot, so being able to pump fake and drive to the rim is a skill that compliments that spot-up ability very well. Ibaka has decent foot-speed for a big man, so being able to force his defender to play tight on him away from the paint gives him a bit of an edge when driving to the rim.
The rest is purely aesthetic. Ibaka displays some good footwork with an aggressive hop-step into the middle before a smooth turnaround move, then floats the hook right in. His form looks great and significantly improved from last season (though from what little of it we've seen so far, it doesn't appear to consistently be so picture perfect), and Ibaka makes good use of his 7'4" wingspan and athleticism to elevate his shot above Ekpe Udoh's hand (for comparison, Udoh has a 7'4.5" wingspan).
The ability to put the ball on the floor and drive to the rim could be very handy for Ibaka, since it's much easier to assimilate into his game. Like we saw in that video, he could create the driving opportunity right out of a pick-and-pop that he chose not to shoot. Take away the hesitation in between the pump fake and the dribble-drive, and that could've been a much better end result.
Which shots go assisted and which ones go unassisted can be a very blurred line sometimes, left in the hands of different stat trackers in different NBA stadiums. Not only that, but there can be situations where Ibaka creates his shot quickly enough after getting the ball that somebody else does get awarded an assist even if Ibaka did put the ball on the floor to get himself a good look. I'm not eager to sort through his 74 assisted makes to find any such scenarios, but it does exist as an asterisk to my findings through the assisted/unassisted stats.
So, let's go look at some different stats to reaffirm things. SportVU currently lists Ibaka's drives per game average at 0.7, which ties him for 223rd with players like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jon Leuer. The drives make up just 5.7% of his 12.2 field goals attempted per game. He also averages just 0.5 pull-up jumpers, which ties him for 270th with Matthew Dellavedova and Pero Antic, among others. Those pull-up jumpers account for 4.1% of his FGAs. Both numbers display an extreme hesitance to put the ball on the floor, which is why he's on par with bench players in his drives/pull-up jumpers per game numbers. Mind you, he's shooting sub-40% in both situations, albeit on an inconclusively small sample size.
If you compare that to his catch-and-shoot numbers, Ibaka is tied for 36th in the league in catch-and-shoot jumpers per game with 4.7 attempts per game (which accounts for 38.5% of his shots per game). He's shooting 45.1% on the catch-and-shoot shots, which is a pretty good number. Only 12 players in the NBA shoot a higher percentage on 4.7+ attempts per game.
I'm not expecting there to be a whole lot of surprise by Ibaka being one of the league's most dangerous catch-and-shoot threats. We all know that's his game, and I'm all for keeping that constant going forward. However, when he's so dependent upon his teammates to help him create his shots, it can really limit him if he can't figure how to create his own shot consistently.
Look at how Ibaka's True Shooting Percentage fluctuates with Durant and Westbrook being on or off the court:
The sample size being small really limits what we can infer from this graph, especially since it forces us to use broader on/off stats (our independent variable) that will overlap. For example, "Westbrook on" and "Durant+Westbrook on" correspond with very similar True Shooting Percentages because Westbrook and Ibaka have only played six minutes together with Durant off. What's clearly visible is that Ibaka's efficiency fluctuates greatly based on whether he's playing with Durant and Westbrook or not.
(There's also a minor subplot going on here that Westbrook has a greater effect on Ibaka's efficiency, which isn't particularly hard to buy even if Ibaka was in a shooting slump where he was even missing open catch-and-shoot shots in the early part of the season when Westbrook was out/returning to game shape. That's not really the point, though.)
The reality today is that Westbrook's back and Ibaka's averaging 14.9 points on 55.8% True Shooting Percentage. That early season shooting slump is completely a thing of the past, and Ibaka even put up a career high 27 points last month against the Golden State Warriors. Nothing's wrong today.
But, remember that Westbrook's original injury timetable had him likely to return around early to mid-December, a timeframe we're just getting into. If Westbrook had just returned or was still yet to return, Serge Ibaka could very likely (as far as we know) be mired still in those offensive struggles. That's the Thunder's second best player out and their third best player limited. In the West, that could mean their 12-3 record drops significantly closer to .500 and they possibly drop out of the top-8 altogether, as the 9-9 Lakers and 8-8 Grizzlies will attest from the 11th and 12th spots in the conference. This ain't the Eastern Conference, son.
Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb have done a great job of stepping up and neutralizing the departure of Kevin Martin, so there's not a pressing need for Ibaka to become less dependent on his teammates in a hurry. To be honest, Ibaka can even prioritize other things first, like to STOP JUMPING ON PUMP FAKES. However, if the injury bug bites us again (and it's been real active in the Western Conference these days), Ibaka better be ready to step up. He's already had one brush with being forced to create his own shot as well as ample time to act on it. A 4-to-6 week timetable will rarely turn out to be just two games, and he shouldn't expect to dodge that bullet again.