The Oklahoma City Thunder are looking to recover from a lost season, having missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Serge Ibaka, on the other hand, is looking to improve on yet another solid campaign.
Why do I say that? Because of the Thunder's poor performance last season, Ibaka was asked to do more on the court. Most notably, Ibaka started to make the three a regular part of his repertoire. Ibaka averaged 3.2 attempts from beyond the arc in 2014-15. However, in each the five seasons before 2014-15, Ibaka averaged less than an attempt from three.
Ibaka's percentages are certainly high enough to justify having him take the three for the rest of his career. But, during this year's media day, Ibaka said that he would be taking less threes this season. It's definitely nice to have Ibaka as a three point threat, but having him stand out on the perimeter hurts the Thunder's rebounding game. Case in point: Despite playing more minutes, Ibaka averaged one less rebound per game in 2014-15 than he did in 2013-14. Heading into next year, expect to see more of a even balance among Ibaka's three and rebounding numbers.
Inside the arc, Ibaka has been hard at work refining his game over the summer. Most notably, Serge has unveiled a new short hook shot that's looking extremely effective. If Ibaka's open with the ball from about 5-10 feet away from the hoop, that hook shot is almost guaranteed to go in. More importantly, Ibaka's footwork has improved as well. Ibaka was hitting shots off of one or two dribbles this pre-season, something he hasn't really done before. If Ibaka can continue to work on these improvements, he will only become more effective and efficient.
Does all of this mean we'll see Serge post a record high number of points next year? Probably not. There will be more options on the floor, assuming the roster is able to stay healthy. Thus, Ibaka will definitely have less offensive responsibility. But that's generally a good thing, because Ibaka is a player whom benefits when the defense isn't paying attention to him.
Defensively, Ibaka has seen his blocks per game average go down over each of the past two seasons. But this isn't a result of aging or regression. Rather, opposing players are respecting Ibaka's shot more. Blocks rely entirely on the element of surprise, and it's hard to surprise players when they know how good you are. Plus, Ibaka is a power forward, so he defends the rim less than a center would. Regardless, Ibaka only allowed opposing players to shoot 45% from within 6 feet of the basket last season, compared to 47% in 2013-14. This is despite Ibaka's blocks per game going down over that same period. So yeah, Ibaka's defense is still on the level it's always been. Hopefully, the NBA will take notice and name Ibaka to his fourth All-NBA defensive team after he was snubbed last year.
On a team level, Ibaka has been the starting power forward for the past four and a half seasons. There's really nothing that would change that at this point. Ibaka is in his prime, while the two power forwards behind him on the depth chart definitely aren't. Furthermore, Ibaka's contract, at $12.5 million per year for the next two years, is a complete bargain. It's definitely in the Thunder's best interest to keep Ibaka happy for when that deal needs to be re-negotiated.
However, Ibaka will be expected to play with various different lineups. During this year's pre-season, Coach Donovan wasn't shy about matching Ibaka with the stars or the bench. Because Ibaka plays off of other people offensively and isn't a defensive liability, it's easy to use him with different combinations of players. Ibaka's backups, Collison and McGary, aren't nearly as versatile.
Because of that, Ibaka will need to stay healthy this season. Serge missed the last 18 games of last season with a knee injury. Luckily, Ibaka was able to enjoy a very long, relaxing off-season. Serge didn't play in the playoffs (as he had for the past five years), and didn't play for the Spanish national team (as he does periodically). As such, Ibaka should be the freshest he's been in years.