Serge Ibaka is in the running for his first ever All-Star appearance, which will take place in New Orleans on Feb. 16, 2014. Given the competition for a spot on the Western squad, Ibaka's chances are slim. He has come out on the wrong side of some All Star Game decisions before.
At the 2011 Slam Dunk Contest, it was predetermined that Blake Griffin would dunk over a Kia in the final round, leaving one of the other participants as the early-round sacrificial lamb. And so it was that despite dunking from farther behind the free throw line than Jordan, and despite grabbing a teddy bear from the rim with his mouth (!!) and then completing another dunk, Ibaka wouldn't score high enough to advance to the next round.
Now, three years later, Ibaka is averaging career highs in points and rebounds, his defensive presence is as dominant and effective as ever, and he is filling in more than admirably as Kevin Durant's sidekick while Russell Westbrook recovers from a knee injury. In most other years, he would be an obvious choice for his first-ever All Star Game. But with a Western Conference frontcourt as loaded as ever - particularly at his power forward position - Ibaka may once again find himself the odd man out on All-Star Weekend.
With the four starters announced on Thursday, and Kobe Bryant's vacancy, that leaves eight open roster spots on which the coaches must vote. The results will be announced this coming Thursday.
Despite having the best season of his career to date and playing on the best team in the West, is Ibaka's case strong enough to actually be named to the Western Conference roster? To answer that, it's important to first look at the competition.
The starters are voted in by the fans. Obviously, these starters are set and it's pretty hard to argue that any of these four aren't deserving. The bigger challenge - as it relates to Ibaka - is that Griffin and Love are both power forwards, meaning Ibaka is already not as essential to filling out the roster.
The sure things
Again, two more frontcourt players.
That cuts it down to five remaining open roster spots, and since just two of these seven are guards, you've got to assume at least two more guards will be named. Realistically, Ibaka is fighting for one of three available frontcourt spots. His competition, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, David Lee, DeMarcus Cousins and Dirk Nowitizki, all have legitimate cases as well.
Going off traditional metrics, Ibaka's case against any of these five isn't the strongest. He averages the fewest points, second-fewest rebounds, and his PER is the lowest of the bunch. But that's a small part of the story.
Ibaka's strength has always been his defense. While his narrative subtly shifted last year from "he's a blocking machine" to "all he really does is get blocks," he's changed it back and has grown into an elite all-around defender this year. His numbers reflect it, too. He's second to Davis in blocks per game among this group and his defensive rating of 99.5 is second only to Duncan.
That is the quick glimpse, but to get a better understanding of why Serge Ibaka deserves to be an All Star as much as anyone, you've got to break down how he stacks up to each one individually.
1) Ibaka vs. Davis
The case for Davis: To begin, the game is being held in Davis' home arena and the last time the host city didn't have one of its players represented was nine years ago in Denver (not counting Las Vegas in 2007). There is a lot of forced fan interaction throughout All Star weekend, and it makes it much easier for everyone involved to have the dude who's town it is to be readily available to grab the mic and keep the ball rolling.
Oh, and Davis is sixth in the league in PER, he leads the entire NBA in blocks per game, and, per NBA Stats, if he keeps up his current pace, he will be the first player to average 20+ points, 10+ rebounds and 3+ blocks for a season since Shaq in '99-'00.
The case for Ibaka: Again, Ibaka's not far behind in blocks. And while this evidence would probably never hold up in a court of law, as one Reddit user pointed out, Davis sure benefits from A LOT of extra blocks at home. 62 percent?!
Also, of those blocks, 76 percent of Ibaka's come at the rim, compared to just 50 percent for Davis.
It's a subtle difference, but it illustrates the larger-scale interior effectiveness of Ibaka. While Davis' number suggests a lot more man-to-man and closeouts, Ibaka's suggests he is spending more time protecting the rim and not allowing easy baskets. This is further supported by the fact that Ibaka ranks 12th in the league (for guys that have played more than 35 games) in holding opponents' to just 43 percent shooting at the rim.
New Orleans, as a whole, is a dismal defensive team, ranked 25th in opponent points per game and 26th in opponent's field goal percentage, and regardless of his supporting cast, some of that has to fall on Davis. Ibaka, meanwhile, is the defensive star of a team that ranks seventh in points allowed and second in opponent's field goal percentage. And much of that low field goal percentage can be attributed to opponents steering clear of the inside and settling for difficult outside jumpers. The All Star Game is obviously about the stars, but team success should play a factor.
Both shoot at about a 52 percent clip, and while Ibaka's 14 and nine may not look as strong as Davis' 20 and 10, the per 36 numbers put Ibaka at 16 and 10, and suddenly the offensive discrepancies aren't quite so vast.
2) Ibaka vs. Duncan
The case for Duncan: He's the one guy whose advanced defensive numbers stack up with Ibaka, as he actually holds a slight edge in defensive rating. The Spurs are also fifth in the league in points allowed to OKC's seventh. Duncan also averages and respectable 3.7 assists per game.
The case for Ibaka: Duncan's field goal percentage of 47 percent is the lowest of the bunch. His 14 points per game is the same as Ibaka. Also, on a similar amount of shot attempts, opponents are shooting 4 percent worse against Ibaka on shots at the rim.
You could look at the fact that Duncan is only playing 29 minute a game two ways. First, that if he played the same minutes as the rest, his stats would be much more gaudy. Or, you could look at it as less minutes allowing maximum production without fatigue. Both teams are battling injuries, but the extended minutes brought about from these injuries have come elsewhere from the Spurs, whereas Ibaka is taking on the extra minutes himself, averaging a career high of 32 per game. Ibaka is also 13 years younger than Duncan, but still.
In those minutes Ibaka is on the court, OKC is a +46 as opposed to when he is on the bench. The Spurs, meanwhile, are a -46 with Duncan on the court as opposed to off. That's not necessarily an indictment of Duncan, but it does suggest that the team is far less dependent on his production than the Thunder is on Ibaka's.
Which makes Ibaka's case over Duncan all the more compelling. It is an All Star Game after all. And, put simply, Ibaka has been a bigger All Star for his team than Duncan has been for his.
One last thing: The Thunder is 3-0 against the Spurs this year.
3) Ibaka vs. Lee
The case for Lee: Averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds. He's also had some monster games for one of the league's most exciting teams. Golden State is a net +20 with Lee on the court.
The case for Ibaka: Honestly, that's really as far as the case for David Lee goes. He's having a great year, but his defense is a non-starter - he has less blocks than Steven Adams or Kendrick Perkins, for crying out loud. Still, he'll be on some lists as a deserving candidate, but only underneath Ibaka.
4) Ibaka vs. Cousins
The case for Cousins: Any way you slice it, his 25 points and 13 rebounds per game is downright impressive. He's also adding 3 assists per game. Lastly, and most importantly, he's Boogie Cousins and he's one of the most interesting/insane/exciting players in the league. Put him around the very best the game has to offer and literally anything is on the table. Awesome handshakes, fights, looks of utter befuddlement that he didn't get the ball, the potential is there, and that's really what All Star weekend is all about.
The case for Ibaka: There's a case to be made that Cousins is exerting all of his effort boosting his offensive numbers while sacrificing on the defensive end. He's averaging just 1.2 blocks per game and opponents are shooting 53 percent at the rim against him (again, compared to 43 percent against Ibaka). That's 138th in the league for players that have played more than 30 games.
Also, OKC is the No. 1 rebounding team in the league, so Ibaka's rebounding responsibilities aren't nearly that of Cousins'. Cousins accounts for 25 percent of his team's rebounds, while Ibaka accounts for just 18 percent of the Thunder's. That may make it look like Ibaka is passing the rebound buck to the rest of his teammates, but when the team is first in the league, it's hard to argue he should be doing more.
And while we're talking about team statistics, the Kings are 28th in points allowed and 27th in opponent field goal percentage.
So while 25 and 13 is eye-popping, there are two sides to a basketball game, and Ibaka is leaps and bounds ahead of Cousins on the defensive end.
5) Ibaka vs. Nowitzki
The case for Nowitzki: Zach Lowe likes him: "He's eighth in PER, and he's not far from another 50-40-90 season at age 35. Madness." He's dropped to 10th in PER, but still.
The case for Ibaka: That's the thing, Dirk is always a fun story and his renaissance this year is certainly something for basketball enthusiasts to take joy in. But to focus strictly on his percentages - he's at 47.5/38.8/90.0 - minimalizes all that goes into being an All Star in this year's West. And while it may seem tired at this point, once again, Ibaka's defense is his best case against Nowitzki. Dirk is averaging only about one block per game and his defensive rating of 107 puts him at the bottom of this bunch and alongside guys like James Harden and Kevin Martin.
Again, simply looking at the traditional metrics severely diminishes Ibaka's All-Star chances. But taken as a whole, his 2013-2014 season has been more than worthy of an All-Star bid.
This was just a sample of his competition, though, and guards like James Harden, Tony Parker, Mike Conley, Goran Dragic and even a few others are all worthy names that will be have strong cases for those same roster spots.
To recap Ibaka's case: He came into the year well aware that he would be forced to shoulder a heavy load while Westbrook recovered. After only two games, Westbrook was back and everything seemed like it'd go back to normal. Then, Westbrook went out again and Ibaka was left where he began the year, as the second-best scoring option behind Kevin Durant on a first place team.
That's a lot to adjust to, especially for a 24-year old who in a lot of ways is still very raw offensively. Craig Sager even reported as much during the Jan. 9 game against the Nuggets, when he quoted Ibaka as saying he wasn't sure what Reggie Jackson was doing on certain plays and didn't know where Jackson wanted him to go on the court.
Yet, while the adjustment wasn't easy, and while many feared the expanded responsibility would overwhelm Ibaka, he found a way to embrace it and thrive. His defensive rating is seventh in the West among players that have played more than 30 games, and the team's status as a Top 5 defense can be largely attributed to that dominating interior presence of Ibaka.
Perhaps most importantly, Ibaka's team is in first place in a ridiculously competitive Western Conference, and he's been the second-best player in getting them there.
The point was initially made in the CBS EOB picks - and Kevin Durant reiterated it over the weekend - but amid all the talk of top teams like Indiana and Portland deserving more than one All-Star, the Thunder currently sits at first place in the West and may only send one All-Star themselves.
As Durant said:
"Why can't we get two guys in if anything? I know Russell (Westbrook) is out and I got named as a starter. So why can't we get another guy in if those guys get three?"
It sounds so much more convincing coming him, and it's a valid point. The best team should be represented by more than just one All-Star. Even if that one All-Star is a superhuman basketball player named Kevin Durant.
All of it is just banter for now, and Ibaka may once again find himself as the odd man out when selections are announced on Thursday. Just know that it will be because there are too many other options, not because he hasn't played like an All-Star.
Chris Hanneke is a new contributor to WTLC. He is a graduate of the University of San Diego and can be found on Twitter: @channeke5
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