This next season is a huge one for the Oklahoma City Thunder. After two years in which their championship aspirations were put on hold because of injuries, they are deeper than ever and are starting the season healthy. Kevin Durant’s impending free agency only adds more pressure to a franchise that has come close to winning it all and wants to return to that place and succeed this time around.
Russell Westbrook and Durant — one of the most potent one-two punches in the history of the league — will need to be at their best for Oklahoma City to survive the West. Equally important is the Thunder’s often forgotten third star, Serge Ibaka.
While Durant’s injury was the catalyst for the Thunder’s forgettable 2014-15 season, things were truly over when Ibaka went down. Oklahoma City was just one game back from the Pelicans at that point and while they continued to fight for the last playoff spot until the end of the regular season on the back of a ridiculous Westbrook stretch, they looked defanged. Even if they somehow made the playoffs, the Warriors would have massacred them.
The Thunder are simply not really a threat to win it all without the springy power forward. The Spurs destroyed them in the two games he missed in the 2013-14 conference finals despite Westbrook and Durant suiting up. Ibaka has been essential to the success of one of the most top-heavy contenders in recent years.
In an effort to create a more well-rounded roster, the Thunder have made several additions and are now for the first time in their existence over the tax line. Having some shooters and an offensively-inclined big man should ease Westbrook’s and Durant’s load. Ibaka, however, has inherited even more responsibilities.
Enes Kanter has just signed a five-year, $70 million contract to stay with the Thunder. He proved to be a fantastic pick and roll partner for Westbrook and has a budding post game that should help him provide a scoring punch to lineups only featuring one other star. He also may be the worst defensive center in basketball. With him on the court, the Thunder’s defense was as porous as the league-worst Timberwolves, allowing more than 109 points per 100 possessions.
The rationalization for the front office’s huge gamble in matching the offer sheet the 23-year-old center signed with the Trail Blazers was that he’s young enough to improve and Ibaka will offset his negative impact on defense while he does. The Thunder have long and athletic perimeter defenders and Ibaka can cover so much ground that, if Kanter starts, he could be hidden despite playing the most important defensive position in basketball.
There’s a chance Billy Donovan decides to instead start the more defensive-minded Steven Adams instead of Kanter. In that case, Ibaka’s ability to space the floor becomes key. The Thunder have never found a good 3-and-D shooting guard since the days in which Thabo Sefolosha was a reliable shooter. The incumbent starter is Andre Roberson, a very good defensive player that shot 25 percent from beyond the arc last year.
Ibaka will act as the team’s release valve in the half court with his ability to hit from mid-range and three-point range if Roberson continues to start. If one of Kyle Singler, Anthony Morrow or Dion Waiters gets the nod, they will provide more shooting but the team might take a step back defensively unless Ibaka is at peak level.
There are a lot of different permutations Donovan can go with in the starting lineup. All need Ibaka’s two-way excellence to truly be at their best. Yet his importance becomes even more evident on small ball units, which are increasingly becoming a lethal weapon in the league.
The Warriors are the team to beat in the West and are at their best with Draymond Green at center. If Andrew Bogut hurts their spacing in a series against the Thunder, Golden State won’t hesitate to go small.
With Ibaka at center, the Thunder should be able to match them blow-by-blow. Against any other team, they will have the upper hand. A well-spread floor plus Westbrook and Durant equals death for opponents. Unlike Green, Ibaka can actually punish his defender consistently for letting him open in the perimeter and he’s as impressive and versatile a defender as the Warriors’ forward. A Westbrook-Morrow-Singler-Durant-Ibaka lineup (just to name one possibility) would be incredibly hard to defend while at the same time able to switch a lot on defense without sacrificing the presence of an elite rim protector.
For the Thunder, Ibaka is the ultimate glue guy, the player that makes every possible lineup more dangerous or balanced by helping mask teammates’ weaknesses. His unique combination of skills makes any coach’s job easier. He’s obviously not the most talented player on the roster but there’s a case to be made that he’s as necessary for the Thunder to contend as Durant and Westbrook.
Oklahoma City will start the year universally considered a contender, and for good reason. They are loaded with talent, the stars have been to the finals before and they have the pieces to match up with any western team. The only thing that can derail their season will be injuries. Durant’s foot is the major concern but anything that happens to Ibaka could be equally devastating.
Even with the improved depth some things don’t change: No Serge, no championship.