It has been a disastrous start for the Oklahoma City Thunder: sitting at 2-6 today, this is the the worst start for the Thunder since the 2008-09 season, the franchise's first year in Oklahoma City. Admittedly, it has been tough to watch, but the expansion of Serge Ibaka's offensive game has me coming back each and every night (and my love for Sebastian Telfair, but that's for another day) to watch.
Ibaka has expanded his game each year. I am not sure a player improves and adds more to their game year after year in the entire league.
When the Thunder selected Ibaka with the 24th pick in the 2008 draft, most people weren't sure what exactly the Thunder were getting, besides an athletic big man from the Republic of Congo. However, Ibaka quickly established himself as a defensive force, leading the league in total blocks in just his second season. If Ibaka became a premier defender and that's it, the Thunder nailed the pick with Ibaka, was the consensus early on in his career.
But Ibaka quickly proved that thinking wrong, improving his offensive game every single offseason and becoming a reliable offensive player quicker than anyone expected.
Ibaka shot just six three-pointers in the first three years of his career. In his fourth year last season, he added a new dimension to his game, shooting 57 threes and showing the ability to knock down the corner three. This helped the Thunder spread their offense and get Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant easier driving lanes and better shots.
He formed a lethal mid-range jumper and became one of the best mid-range shooters in the entire league. For the 2012-13 season, he was the best mid-range shooter at 49.3 percent in the entire league, via Grantland. Yes, no one in the entire NBA shot the mid-range ball better than the 6-foot-10 Ibaka that year.
It becomes even more impressive because Ibaka shot 40.3 percent on shots from 10 feet to the 3-point line in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. The two seasons after that, Ibaka improved his average by 10 percent to become over a 50 percent shooter from the same range. Improving that much while increasing the volume is nearly unheard of in the NBA.
It is simply a testament to Ibaka's work ethic and his will to become a better player.
And now here we are today. Ibaka is still consistently bringing in new stuff on the offensive end that we hadn't seen him before in his five-year career. This time around, he has season averages of 16.8 points per game while shooting 50 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from beyond the arc.
Before we delve any deeper, I want to make sure it is clear that many of Ibaka's numbers and shot volume statistics are skewed because of Durant and Westbrook's absence early in the year. He is on pace to shoot nearly 390 3s this season. That simply isn't going to happen when KD and Russ are back in the lineup. However, it is important to note where he is shooting threes, the way he is using the ball fake and his patience on offense – all things that will translate to the floor with a healthy team and will make the Thunder even more difficult to stop.
Make no mistake about it: Ibaka's newfound willingness and ability to take the three-pointer above the break is going to cause a lot of problems for opposing defenses.
Last year, of his 60 attempted threes, 49 of them came from the corners – a shorter and usually less contested three-point shot. This year, Ibaka has already shot 29 threes above the break in the arc, compared to only 11 in all of last year. So far in the year, he is shooting 44.8 percent on those shots.
If he continues to hit these shots when Russ and KD get back, defenses will have more to contend with when guarding the Thunder, and will have to pick their poison.
This is a perfect example:
This may seem like just a simple kick out, but Westbrook loves initiating the offense out the post like this because he can get by nearly any guard and either create or score. Because of that, LaMarcus Aldridge is forced to dig down on Westbrook in the post to help Damian Lillard. Westbrook sees this and makes the easy pass to Ibaka, who has an open three at the top of the key. Aldridge's choices were to double-team Westbrook and leave Ibaka open, or otherwise allow Westbrook to stay one-on-one with Lillard.
If Ibaka continues to knock down the above-the-break three at a high clip, defenders are going to have to decide more often, "Do I help on Westbrook or do I stay with Ibaka?" If they help on Westbrook, Ibaka is going to get looks like above, and if not, Westbrook (when healthy) is going to destroy opposing point guards in the post or in other situations. It's a wrinkle the Thunder haven't had in recent years because Ibaka was not comfortable nor capable of knocking down threes past the corners.
Another reason why Ibaka's new three-point range could be crucial when Westbrook and Durant get back is because both of those guys are so fast with the ball and love to get out in transition. This causes the defense to get back in the paint and try to stop them from scoring. With that, Ibaka trailing the play is going to get open threes because the defense is packed in the paint trying to stop Durant or Westbrook. A simple kick out will lead to an uncontested three for Ibaka more times than not.
One of the other things I am noticing with Ibaka on offense is his patience. He is getting the ball, sizing up his opponent and using a jab step to free up space.
Like, I've never seen Ibaka operate like this:
Those two jab steps may not seem like much, but they get Teletovic off balance and creates space for Ibaka to rise up and shoot the shot less contested than if he didn't jab step.
On this play, Ibaka sizes up Faried, jabs at him then uses a pump fake to blow by him and get the dunk.
Because Ibaka's mid-range shot has been so deadly the last couple years, teams play him so tight because they know that is what he wants to do instead of putting the ball on the floor. This year though, he has had no problem faking and going so far this year.
Ibaka is shooting nearly two (1.9 to be exact) pull-up jumpers game. Last year he averaged .6 pull-up jump shots per game. While he is increasing the volume, Ibaka is still knocking down 53.3 percent of his pull up jumpers.
Obviously, this a small sample size – we are only eight games into the season, but I see no reason he can't sustain his efficiency.
His volume of shots is certainly going to dwindle as the Thunder get healthy, but that means he is going to even get more open shots with the firepower the Thunder have on offense. Right now he is option 1B behind Reggie Jackson. When KD and Russ return, he will be the third or fourth option, meaning he is going to get even more open looks because defenses will be more concerned about other players.
While the injury problems the Thunder have had are hurting this team drastically, they may be a blessing in disguise for the expansion of Ibaka's offensive game. He is doing things (like shooting 4.8 threes per game) he would never have done with a healthy roster.
However, down the road Ibaka's expanded offensive game could pay dividends for the Thunder. It is going to take pressure off Durant and Westbrook, open things up for them and make the Thunder even more difficult to guard.
The Thunder are in real danger of potentially missing the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference because of their slow and injury-plagued start, but if they get healthy in time, they may win the title. And the new things Serge Ibaka is doing on offense may be one of the biggest reasons why.
But then again, we shouldn't be surprised: doing new things is just what Serge Ibaka does.