On the dawn of the third game post Russell Westbrook, the Thunder are still struggling to find an offensive identity. They're obviously having some problems handling the ball, as evidenced by their plethora of turnovers. But that's a result of playing a gimmicky Rockets team that loves to pressure. The more important issue, at least in my opinion, is the Thunder's lack of a secondary scorer.
The most obvious options would be the Thunder's third and fourth highest scorers during the regular season. Namely, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin. But neither of them have been particularly effective. Kevin Martin has been a huge disappointment throughout the series, shooting consistently low percentages despite taking a number of open shots. Serge Ibaka, on the other hand, hasn't really been a disappointment, but he also hasn't been able to really make the transition to becoming a featured player.
Why is that? Well, Serge Ibaka simply can't create his own shot. Most players of his size have something resembling a back-to-the-basket game, allowing them to score off the block when the offense has nothing going. Additionally, it allows them to suck in the defense and create offense simply by their presence. If you give Ibaka the ball on the block, he does the same play every single time. He tries to back his defender in, and then he tries a wild, low percentage hook shot. He always does this from the right block, assumedly because a left handed hook would be infinitely harder to hit.
On the perimeter, Serge isn't nearly reliable enough with the ball to create his own shot. He rarely takes more than 1 or 2 dribbles, and would probably fumble the ball away if he had to do anything fancy. Now, he has faced up his defender before in the triple-threat position, but this mostly results in him passing the ball or throwing up a contested jumper.
Obviously, Serge's skillset could change, especially given his growth over the past few years. But for now, his skillset is limited to doing things off of the ball. Perhaps his most well-known asset is his ability to rise up for the mid-range shot. He ran a pick and pop with Russell Westbrook quite often, and can nail down pretty much any shot inside of the three point line. This wouldn't be impressive on its' own, but because he's often facing slow-footed defenders, it comes in handy.
The rest of his offensive skillset is near the basket. He's pretty good at getting in position under the basket, ready to receive post-passes from an oncoming guard. He's also pretty good at getting offensive rebounds, mostly because his athleticism and hustle allow him to sneak into mobs of players and snatch the most unlikely of boards. He's also good at rolling to the basket on a pick and roll, but we've seen that less as the Thunder's offense has evolved.
After reading that, it would seem like Serge Ibaka is pretty limited, right? Well, yes. It might be fair to assume that Serge Ibaka was playing at his ceiling with two of the greatest scorers in the league sucking coverage away from him. And it also might be fair to assume that he plays best when other players are playing well, because the attention put onto other players brings it away from him.
Also to be considered is his different role when playing without Kendrick Perkins or Nick Collison. Without them, Ibaka is forced to be the centerpiece of the Thunder offense. He has to set all of the screens, be in position for offensive rebounds, and generally help other guys get open. This uses up more of his energy, and keeps him out of scoring position most of the time.
But, let's put doubt aside for a minute. What could the Thunder do to get Serge Ibaka more involved?
1. Run the pick and pop with Reggie Jackson. Reggie Jackson isn't Russell Westbrook, but he possesses the same skillset. As long as he can prove himself by scoring a few buckets down low, he'll earn the respect of the defense. As soon as he can do that, he can dish out to a wide-open Ibaka.
2. Play Serge Ibaka with another big. As mentioned above, Ibaka does better when he doesn't have to help create space for the offense. But he also does better when he's able to play guys his size, rather than having to go toe-to-toe with Omer Asik constantly.
3. Run a few plays for Ibaka in the corner. If Sefolosha's not hitting them, it couldn't hurt. You take an offensive rebounding hit, but if there's another big in the game and the other team is going small, the effect won't be that dire.
4. Off-ball cuts. Once you've established him as a jump shooting threat, players will go out to guard him. That's when he can use his athleticism and size to beat them into the lane and grab a sweet alley-oop pass. Or, you know, lay it in.
Obviously, all of the above is easier said than done, and it's not meant to be an all-encompassing list. All I'm really saying is that Ibaka, while limited, can run simple plays and get easy scores. It doesn't take Steve Nash to run a pick and pop. His teammates simply have to look for him and move the ball.
Why do we want Ibaka more involved? Because he's ridiculously efficient at what he does. He might seriously have one of the most consistent mid-range jumpers in the game today. The Thunder haven't been able to control the rebounding or turnover battle in the past couple of games, so they've had to ride their shooting percentage, hoping their offense is enough to outpower the Rockets. If the Thunder could rely on a guy like Ibaka to consistently shoot 50% and drop 15-20 points a game, it would go a long way towards that goal when other things fall apart.
Do you think Ibaka has a glass ceiling? Let us know in the comments!