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The Legend of Serge Ibaka

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Avec classe.

Determination
Determination

Serge Ibaka.

It hurts so bad to see you go. Ibaka arrived in Oklahoma City in 2009 as a raw role player. A project that might be effective a few years down the line. But it wasn't long before Ibaka started getting regular minutes in the rotation. Soon, the Thunder traded away Jeff Green to clear room for Serge Ibaka in the starting lineup. From there, Ibaka became the face of one of the NBA's most ferocious defensive front courts. Ibaka stands at only 6'10" tall, but led the NBA in blocks twice. Not to mention Ibaka's three time All-Defensive First Team nominations.

Sure, the past couple of years have brought on a decline in Ibaka's athleticism. Ibaka isn't the leaper he once was, as his blocks have steadily gone down. Even Ibaka's effectiveness as a rebounder and pick and roll player has diminished. But Serge is a tireless honer of his craft. Despite coming into the game completely raw, Serge developed a solid shot from just about any range on the floor. Serge can hit any form of open mid-range or three point shot with amazing efficiency. With the NBA moving towards a more pace and space type game, Ibaka made himself an extremely valuable commodity.

But Ibaka was made slowly obsolete over this season and the past season. For years, a young Ibaka used to have to roam the paint for the Thunder, protecting the rim. OKC's starting center, Kendrick Perkins, was too slow to guard anyone but his assignment. However, the emergence of Steven Adams over the past couple of years has given the Thunder a true rim protector. To Adams' credit, he worked exclusively on defense throughout the first two years of his NBA career. But with a center guarding the paint, Ibaka became a much more perimeter-oriented player.

Being on the perimeter just doesn't use Ibaka's strengths though. Ibaka is still a fantastic one on one defender in the paint, and a fantastic help defender. But Ibaka isn't very good at guarding roaming power forwards who shoot threes from the corners. Ibaka stretches the floor on offense, but is simply too slow to stretch the floor on defense. So, in a nutshell, Ibaka used to be cornerstone of OKC's defense. By the end of this year, Ibaka was a liability half of the time. And it wasn't even his fault!

Ibaka makes a lot of sense for a lot of teams right now, as a center. The Cleveland Cavaliers, who won the NBA title this year, basically did it without a center. Tristan Thompson, the team's primary defensive option in the post, is primarily a rebounder. However, Ibaka provides the best of both worlds for most prospective teams. Ibaka is a lethal and consistent weapon on offense, and can be a very effective rim protector. In other words, Ibaka is the ideal center for the majority of teams in this league.

That, combined with Ibaka's continued success and playoff experience next to Durant and Westbrook, makes Ibaka extremely valuable trade bait. I mean, KD and Westbrook have titanic media presences, and unique personalities. If Ibaka can stay out of the spotlight yet still follow his own path on the Thunder, then he's theoretically a fantastic presence on any other team. Ibaka will play his role to the fullest, won't try to be the star, and brings a ton of defensive knowledge.

That's why Sam Presti was able to absolutely fleece Rob Flennigan in this deal. The Magic are a team with a ton of young and exciting assets that simply don't fit together. One year rental coach Scott Skiles wasn't able to make sense of the team, and the Magic seriously lacked in three point shooting. So the Magic have been willing to part with some of their assets to retool to win now. The first step in that process was ejecting Tobias Harris, who didn't seem to have the range to be a true stretch four. Frank Vogel, an established winning coach, took the Magic job in the off-season. Now, the Magic are willing to go so far as trading Victor Oladipo. Oladipo is an athletic wonder, with serious All-Star potential if he continues to improve. But the Magic want success right now, and are going with an established player than can be a center for them. Also, the Magic were willing to give up #10 pick Domatas Sabonis. Sabonis is most likely a future role player, but the Thunder like to keep it young and the Magic have an excess of youth.

The Thunder don't even really need a replacement for Serge Ibaka. Durant, Roberson, and Collison are more than enough to handle any power forward that the opposing team might throw at us. And there's always the potential development of Sabonis, who will prove to be a solid rebounding big man. Also, I'd just like to note that there's no point in having a power forward trying to cover the paint for Kanter. Kanter will just be put into a pick and roll or mismatched. And as we all know, the Ibaka-Kanter pairing was defensively horrible. So the Thunder might as well accept Kanter's defense while keeping their lineups as lean as possible.

But that doesn't make it easier losing Serge, emotionally. Ibaka has an irreplaceable personality that will forever be missed. Things like the "double phone manuever" during pre-game warm-ups. The "double thumbs down" pose after blocking a shot. The Air Congo pose after a dunk. The ridiculously toned body. Even the lingo, "Fuzzy", "avec classe", things like that. Even the fan names were great. The Serge Protector. Iblocka. There's just so much about Serge that was unique to him, and can never be replaced.

But let's not forget the essential role that Serge played in building this team. Here's some of my favorite Serge memories through the years, in chronological order.

Serge Ibaka secures his rotation spot less than a month in (2009)

Heading into the 2009 season, the Thunder had signed this backup big named Etan Thomas. He was supposed to provide us with a defensive presence in the paint. But Thomas was old, slow, and extremely unreliable on offense. In comes the extremely raw Serge Ibaka. It was hard watching Serge sometimes, as he committed silly fouls and made mental mistakes like three in the key. But this video shows the best of a young Ibaka, as he ably guards Pau Gasol and showcases his mid-range jumper. From this game on, it was obvious that Ibaka deserved a spot in the rotation moving forward.

The Nuggets underestimate Serge's range (2011)

Ibaka was still technically a bench player heading into the 2012 playoffs. But games like this one proved that he was ready for a starting role. Not only did Ibaka protect the rim with 4 blocks, he provided 22 points almost exclusively on mid-range jumpers. The Nuggets didn't do their homework, and they paid. Also, props to Ibaka for cherrypicking the final possession to secure a 3 point lead. This performance gave OKC a 3-0 lead in the first round, and put the Thunder wll on their way to a Western Conference Finals appearance.

Serge Ibaka out-rebounds Steve Nash's Suns (2012 Regular Season)

Ibaka at his athletic peak, jumping over Marcin Gortat for a whopping 20 rebounds. Nice to just sit and marvel at how this dude operates on another level. Ibaka's presence definitely won OKC this game. Crucial, given how he had just earned a starting spot upon Jeff Green's trade.

Serge Triple-Doubles the Nuggets (2012 Regular Season)

Enroute to the 2012 Finals, the Thunder always had problems defending small, quick teams. The Nuggets were a bunch of rimrunners at the time, zipping up the court for quick points at the rim. This quick pace made Perk's defense look foolish, and forced Ibaka to play an integral role in protecting the basket. The result was this, Ibaka's first career triple-double. With 11 blocks.

Serge Ibaka goes a perfect 11/11 for 26 points to win Game 4 of 2012 WCF

The 2012 Spurs were a formidable team, led by the aging trio of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili. But it wasn't yet the Spurs time to shine, as they had a remarkable weakness at the power forward position. Simply put, San Antonio didn't have the athleticism to deal with Ibaka as he's jumping towards the hoop, nor the athleticism to meet Ibaka mid-range. Sure, this performance wasn't how Serge played every game of this series. But when Serge is on, there's no stopping his ruthless determination or efficiency. Some seriously difficult shots and one awesome dunk to marvel at here.

Serge Ibaka misses the game-tying layup that could have helped sweep the Rockets (2013)

2012-13 was a really hard year to be a Thunder fan. First, James Harden is ripped away from you by trade. Then Westbrook is taken away by injury, two games into the playoffs. And Kevin Martin, Harden's replacement, was laying an egg. This left the Thunder with just Durant, Ibaka, and Jackson to hold down the fort. But it was a struggle for Ibaka, who is not used to having to create his own offense. I feel like this moment perfectly captures the passion and disappointment of that season. OKC was so close to proving their worth without Westbrook and Harden, but a single missed putback sent the Thunder into an irrecoverable tailspin. The Rockets series went 6 games, and OKC would eventually get grinded out by the Grizzlies.

But here's the thing. After Serge sees the shot fall short, he collapses to the floor, with his arm in front of his face. Serge wept with us as fans, because he knew how much that loss meant. It's rare to have a moment where the player and the audience seem to be so connected.

Serge Ibaka makes the Clippers pay for ignoring him, Thunder take series (2014)

It's Game 3 in a tight series between the Clippers and Thunder. The Clippers were able to steal one from OKC at home, and the Thunder were facing questions of whether they'd ever be effective without Harden. But Serge Ibaka stepped up and reminded everyone why he was the third cog. So many nailed open jumpers, along with a couple of aggressive baskets at the rim.

Serge Ibaka walks through that door (WCF, 2014)

During the 2014 playoffs, tragedy struck when Serge Ibaka was diagnosed with a injury. The injury occurred during game 7 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals, and figured to have Serge out for weeks. After a Game 1 loss, Scott Brooks famously declared "Serge Ibaka isn't walking through that door." Then, Darnell Mayberry posted a Vine of Serge doing that very thing, right before the critical Game 3 at home. Serge comes into the game, and he's not the best player on the team. KD had 25 points that night, and Westbrook 26. But Ibaka had a rock solid 16 points with 6 of 7 shooting, and the Thunder won the game. OKC would lose the series, but Serge's determination in overcoming injury and subsequent performance certainly inspired us all.

Serge Ibaka leads Thunder to victory with no Durant or Westbrook (2015)

The 2014-15 season was a disaster on all levels. KD, Reggie Jackson, Anthony Morrow, and Jeremy Lamb were out before the season even began. Then, Russell Westbrook broke his hand during Game 2. This left Sebastian Telfair, straight out of the Chinese League, as OKC's starting point guard. Perry Jones III earned a spot in KD and Lamb's absence. But Ibaka was the best established player that remained, and it was his job to set the standard.

Ibaka certainly did. A rock solid offensive performance of 23 points on 10 of 19 shooting. The Nuggets were a bad team at the time, with not many solid defenders to speak of. But the Nuggets did have a man on Ibaka at all times, and it was impressive to see Serge create his own shots. Quickness in transition, mismatches, and aggressiveness in going to the rim all served Ibaka well on this night. Plus, Ibaka made a couple of threes, setting the standard for the future. Drastic times create drastic evolutions.

Serge Ibaka secures the rebound, Thunder upset San Antonio in Game 2 (2016 WCSF)

Toughness. Grit. Determination. Whatever you want to call it, it's here. OKC looks to inbound the ball. Ibaka has a good angle, but is ignored. The inbounder, Waiters, elects to lob to KD. But the ball is bobbled and the Spurs have a chance. Patty Mills three is short, and all of a sudden Ibaka finds himself in a three man battle for the rebound. Leonard and Duncan seem to hold the advantage. But Ibaka scrapes and scraps for the ball. Eventually, Serge secures it, and the refs make no call. OKC upset San Antonio in Game 2, eventually triggering the 4-2 series victory. The Spurs may have been the superior regular season team, but no one can match the nerve of Serge.

Ibaka provides a steady hand for OKC as they steal Game 1 from Warriors (2016 WCF)

OKC was down by as much as 10 to a Warrior team that some thought was the greatest of all time. The Warriors quickness essentially made Ibaka into an average player. Ibaka could never leave his man at the three point line, and he's not an exceptional perimeter defender. And the slow release on Ibaka's jumper made it hard to pull off on offense. But one thing the Warriors could never take away from Ibaka was his determination and steady hand. With OKC down, Ibaka was there, doing his job, hitting rock solid jumpers. And when OKC went small, he provided solid rebounding help that was sorely needed. Ibaka's last season might have not been his best, but I'll be damned if he didn't try just as hard as any other year.

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On a personal level, I'm going to miss Serge Ibaka even more than the average Thunder fan might. Serge Ibaka played international basketball for Spain for three different summers, as well as club ball in Madrid during the 2011 Lockout. Ibaka's travels inspired me to follow him. I've seen Ibaka play live in Lithuania, Italy, Slovenia, and Spain over the years. All of those experiences have shaped who I am today, and I largely have Serge to thank.

On a team level, there's no question in my mind that Ibaka's jersey should be retired in Oklahoma City's rafters when the time comes. No matter what else might happen in Ibaka's career moving forward, he was an essential part of the foundation of this winning franchise.

And though it may not mean much, I am making Serge Ibaka the first inductee into the WTLC Thunder Hall of Fame. May his name and legacy live on for generations to come.

Au revoir.

Special thanks to AirCongoTV on Youtube, who put together a lot of these highlight reels.