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Thunder Player Development: The Continuing Defensive Development of Serge Ibaka

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Serge Ibaka has led the league in blocks and made the All-Defensive first team in both of the last two seasons. Where does he still need to improve on defense?


After looking at Serge Ibaka's offensive game in recent posts, let's shift gears and take a look at Ibaka on the defensive side of the ball. More specifically, let's look at where the improvement happened last season, and where further improvement is necessary.

Isn't Ibaka already one of the league's best defenders in the paint? Wasn't he the Defensive Player of the Year Runner Up two seasons ago? Surely Ibaka is an elite defender already who changes the outcome of games and his time is better spent worrying about refining his offensive game.

Unfortunately, that popular opinion is actually a misconception. Ibaka certainly is an elite shot-blocker. Even though last season was a decline in average blocks per game, Ibaka still averaged 3.0 blocks per game while leading the NBA for the second consecutive season. He takes advantage of his impressive wingspan and athletic ability as one of the league's most dangerous shot-blockers. However, being an elite shot-blocker doesn't necessarily equal being an elite defender.

When Ibaka isn't sending shots away from the rim, he has more trouble standing out on the defensive end. This isn't to say he's a bad defender, or even just a mediocre one. His shot-blocking still does leave a noticeable impact in games, and he's made a lot of improvements further away from the hoop in recent seasons. Ibaka is a good defender with the potential for greatness. However, he still has his flaws.

With that said, Ibaka has made great strides with his defense on the ball and against the pick-and-roll. Ibaka has learned to use his mobility on the perimeter, sliding his feet and taking advantage of his size and length to contain opposing offensive players. Even against guards in the pick-and-roll, Ibaka is capable of the "show and recovery," of putting a body on guards long enough for the original defender to get past the screen while not giving up a driving lane. He still gets beat off the drive at times, but his understanding of staying grounded and not falling for sneaky fakes has both improved his consistency and helped him avoid cheap fouls that have plagued him in the past.

Ibaka's improvements are notable, but his shortcomings still need work. Most glaringly, Ibaka's awareness and positioning away from the ball cause individual and team breakdowns. Ibaka is often caught over-helping as well as lingering as a help defender. Just one mistake can lead to a breakdown in the Thunder's defense, and the team's defensive playmaker should not be the one committing those errors.

Watch this play below where Ibaka over-helps against the pick-and-roll. As his man sets the screen on Thabo Sefolosha, Ibaka comes up to the ball-handler in an attempt to contain him in order to allow Sefolosha to recover. However, Randy Foye denies the screen and dribbles away from it. Because Ibaka helped too far to the far side, Derrick Favors is left with an uncontested lane as he rolls to the rim and Al Jefferson gets the easy layup.

This type of over-help negates Ibaka's defensive instincts because it pulls him so far out of the play that he has no hope of recovery and pursuit of the ball. It's even more blatant outside of the pick-and-roll, where Ibaka often instinctively gravitates towards the rim. Like many one dimensional shot-blockers, Ibaka likes to wait for the shot at the rim, and lurks closely to try and turn it away. However, that usually means Ibaka is also leaving his own check open at the perimeter or with room to cut back door. Protecting the rim is the first goal for every defense in the league, but giving up open jump shots regularly isn't a plan for success either.

In this play below, Tony Parker drives baseline, shaking off Russell Westbrook entirely. The help defenders, Kendrick Perkins and Ibaka, are able to dissuade Parker from forcing up a layup. However, Ibaka comes in far too close to the basket, and leaves Tim Duncan with too much space to work. Parker finds Duncan, and of course, the ever-consistent Mr. Fundamental nails the easy deuce.

One can see how Ibaka began to inch closer and closer to the basket in anticipation of the slashing Tony Parker, even before the dribble penetration actually occurred. That's the shot-blocker's tendency to edge towards the rim, watching for the shot at the rim. However, smart players like Parker understand how to use Ibaka's tendency against him and sets him up perfectly to dish to Duncan.

What's interesting about this play is that is also highlights one other area of weakness in Ibaka's defense. Ibaka often lingers as a help defender, even when he's already accomplished his job as one. After Parker doesn't get his shot up and dribbles past the rim, Ibaka's job is done and he should immediately return to his own defensive check. Instead, he waits flat-footed and doesn't return to Duncan until Parker's pass is nearly in his hands. By that time, it was far too late. If Ibaka had gone back to Duncan earlier, he might have been able to contest the shot, or at the least, cut off the passing lane.

Let's watch one more play that highlights the same thing. John Salmons of the Sacramento Kings runs a pick-and-roll with Jason Thompson and Ibaka challenges Salmons off of the screen, giving Kevin Durant the necessary time to recover. This "show and recover" effectively ends the pick-and-roll, as Salmons is stopped and Durant is able to pick him back up. However, Ibaka lingers with Salmons and Durant, not fading back to Thompson spotting up in the midrange. Like Duncan in the last play, Thompson knocks down the easy jumper.

Despite these poor defensive habits, Ibaka is still a very good defender in the NBA. He's been named to the NBA's All-Defensive first team for two consecutive years on the back of his top-tier shot-blocking and his improvements as an on-ball and pick-and-roll defender.

However, Defensive Player of the Year is a plateau he has yet to reach. Also, the past two winners Tyson Chandler and Marc Gasol prove that great defense does not require elite athleticism, but a combination of intellect, instincts, and court awareness. More importantly, the Thunder need Ibaka to anchor their defensive efforts.

The Thunder are a team that plays good defense but has the ability to play great defense. If they are to reach that level of defensive consistency that we see out of teams like the Grizzlies, they as a unit will have to take steps similar to what what is described here. Ibaka is the perfect anchor for the Thunder's aggressive, athletic defense, but he must show that he's ready to excel at the mental aspects of defensive play to accompany and enhance his physical attributes.