Last season when Oklahoma City had the devastating trio of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden the team’s rallying cry was “Thunder up!” This season, despite owning the second-best record in the Western Conference, the theme has been downgraded to “Thunder down!”
So what gives?
As good as Oklahoma City has been all season it has many flaws. Some ESPN personalities, such as Skip Bayless, harp on Westbrook’s erratic play that’s keeping the Thunder from taking the next step into becoming a championship contender. Some even suggest that Durant is way too passive and doesn’t demand ball enough. Some point the finger at head coach Scott Brooks for poor adjustments.
Because they are the leaders of the team, Westbrook and Durant are easy targets for criticism. But THE GUY who deserves the blame for OKC’s inability to jump over San Antonio and Miami is forward Serge Ibaka.
During the offseason Thunder general manager Sam Presti had a difficult decision. Who should the team keep: Harden or Ibaka? The team couldn’t afford to keep both so one had to go. Presti gave Ibaka a contract extension and shipped Harden to Houston.
It was a move necessitated by the new economic landscape in the NBA and the common prevailing thought that you would rather keep a good big man or a good perimeter player.
Presti and the Thunder rolled the dice and broke up their super trio, hoping that Ibaka would grow from his current supporting role into a starring role.
And that hasn’t happened.
Despite his immense potential, the 23-year-old forward has somewhat plateaued as a player and his tepid progress offensively is holding back Oklahoma City from becoming a legitimate championship contender.
Ibaka remains a demon on the defensive end, but he has not evolved as an offensive player. Instead of developing some kind of an inside game near the basket Ibaka has gone farther and farther away from the basket. He has often fallen in love with the 3-point shot, which teams will gladly welcome because it relieves them from having to defend him in the paint.
Ibaka has been up-and-down this season, looking like a superhero one night then looking very ordinary the next. He had a 25-17 game against San Antonio in December, but had a 6-6 game against Miami in February. In a nationally televised game against the New York Knicks on April 7, Ibaka was surprisingly absent when it counted most. Sure, he surged ahead for 11 points and five blocks in the first quarter, but he scored just one more basket and did not have a block the rest of the game as the Thunder lost, 125-120.
Ibaka’s scoring average is up from last season (from 9 to 13) but his rebounding is not where it should be (7.9). For a guy with his length, physique, and jumping ability, Ibaka could easily average 16 points and 10 rebounds in the NBA. He should be dominating the power forwards in the West.
Charles Barkley famously asked, “what do you call a power forward who averages less than eight rebounds a game … a small forward.”
For the Thunder to win the NBA title, Ibaka must challenge himself into becoming a bigger force inside. Instead of working on his 3-point shot he should be working on jump hooks and drop steps in the paint. He needs to play closer to the basket.
It’s time for Ibaka to Thunder up.
Joel Huerto is the editor and publisher of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.