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Thunder Player Grades: Serge Ibaka's mystifying year

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Despite positive individual indicators, Ibaka's overall impact regressed. Why?

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Full Name: Serge Jonas Ibaka Ngobila

Nickname: Stateside: "Iblocka" or "Serge Protector." In his homeland: "Yao Ming."

Contract Status: Signed through 2016-17 at $12.35MM annually.

Yearly Documentary: This year, The Vertical released a mini-documentary about Ibaka's fascinating path to fatherhood.

Player History:

  • Played on the Republic of Congo's national team as a teen
  • Played for French and Spanish pro teams at age 17 & 18
  • Drafted 24th by the Supersonics in the 2008 draft
  • Played one more year in Spain, and came to the NBA in 2009--after the Sonics had become the Thunder

Serge Ibaka has slipped from being the game's perennial shot block leader the last two seasons, but he's cemented his "unicorn" status over the same time—the rare 3-and-D big who can swat shots and knock down threes. After taking a mere 123 three-point attempts the first five years of his career, he flipped that unicorn switch before the 2014-15 campaign to become one of only two players ever to have multiple 60/100 three-pointers made/blocked shots seasons.

Pre-/Early-Season Expectations:

With a finally-healthy roster, a new coach in Billy Donovan, and a newly maxed Enes Kanter returning, Ibaka's role was somewhat uncertain heading into the 2015-16 season. Would his minutes take a hit? Would Donovan's anticipated modern offense have him jacking even more threes? Would a summer off from international ball lead to a rejuvenated season, rather than more of the come-and-go explosiveness that's marked his play in recent years?

GM Sam Presti said that, despite some lingering knee issue that ended his 2014-15 season prematurely, Ibaka was the player showing the most improvement heading into opening night.

Regular Season Grade: C+

Postseason Grade: A-

Ibaka's season was mystifying. Entering what should be his prime at age 26, he regressed. While the Thunder took and made more threes than ever before, his shooting attempts and effectiveness (32.6%) from beyond the arc were both significantly down from the year prior (when he was without spacing king Kevin Durant for most of the season). He scored 12.6 points per game, his lowest since 2011-12, and turned in career-worst totals for PER (13.9) and true shooting percentage (.533).

His regression showed up on defense as well, where he blocked shots at a career-worst rate per 36 minutes (2.1). His per-36 rebounding average (7.7) was also at a career low, and both his defensive win shares (5.5) and defensive box plus/minus (1.0) were his worst since his rookie season, when he played about half as many minutes.

On the other hand, Ibaka was still pivotal for the Thunder in both the regular season and playoffs, helping anchor the league's most dominant starting lineup and giving Billy Donovan the flexibility to leverage small and big lineups against both San Antonio and Golden State in the postseason. Much of his decreased production isn't so alarming in the big picture: Durant's return, on the heels of Russell Westbrook becoming a top-5 offensive monster himself, would obviously cut into Ibaka's usage. As would Westbrook's synergy with Steven Adams as a roll man; Ibaka was used almost exclusively as a pick-and-popper when ball-screening. A dip in rebounds? No worry, since the Thunder shared the rebounding load better than any team in the league. Less defensive impact overall? Playing heavy minutes beside Enes Kanter instead of Kendrick Perkins will do that to you.

Again, he's still one of the most unique players in the league, still elite at what he does. He had the most blocks of any big with 50 or more blocks, and Rudy Gobert was the only other player to see more than 30 minutes per game and hold opponents to a worse field goal percentage at the rim (41% to Ibaka's 43.6%). And as dinged up as he often appears, he's one of the most durable players in the game. He appeared in 78 games this season, padding his remarkable 94% mark of Thunder games played for his career.

Best Game/Moment: Game 1 vs. the Mavericks

In the Thunder's opening game of the playoffs, Ibaka helped set the tone in a blowout with 17 points on 7-8 shooting, 9 boards, and 3 blocks. The Thunder looked overwhelming, ready to flip the proverbial playoff switch. Minus a couple hiccups, they did, and Ibaka was instrumental

Worst Game/Moment(s): Fouling Three-Point Shooters

Ibaka deserves praise for thriving at the heart of both the Thunder's one-on-one scheme against LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs and the switch-everything scheme against the Warriors' deadly three-point shooters. But in some crucial moments, he got caught with his hands in the cookie jar, including a foul on Steph Curry in the final minutes of play that cut short the Thunder's Game 7 comeback attempt in Oakland.

Future Expectations

Ibaka opened up during and after the season, honestly addressing his struggles to adapt to his role on the new Thunder. He's acknowledged that it can be frustrating to lack touches on offense, and that he needs to get his head around becoming a pure stretch four.

His skillset isn't waning significantly, and shouldn't be at this age. While there is some room for improvement from him (he still can't dribble, and rivals Andre Roberson for the team's worst ball-mover), it's really on the coaching staff to better incorporate his fluid abilities into the Thunder machine. He's too often a forgotten man in the fourth quarter, and should be getting more looks overall than he did in 2015-16.

While Kanter's progress has led many fans to consider Ibaka as an expendable trade chip, he's too important for what the Thunder do to view that way. Assuming Durant re-signs in Oklahoma City, he'll star on the team best equipped to pummel opponents with both huge lineups and small lineups, something both necessary in the West and impossible without Ibaka in the frontcourt.