Essay: Why Is Serge Ibaka Regressing?
When discussing the development of a freak basketball prodigy, five years can stretch wider than a full lifetime of data. The views on a player bounce from buzz, to hype, to budding results, to what-have-you-done-for-me-lately at an unnatural rate. In other words, a prospect’s death immediately follows his birth, with no substantial life worth analyses existing in between.
Five years ago nobody knew who Serge Ibaka was. Four years ago he was a first round draft pick. Three years ago he was a minor cog—albeit an extremely athletic one—getting decent minutes on a young, exciting tour de force. Last year he was allowed space to surf on the league’s wave of promised greatness; competing in the dunk contest, blocking over 50 (!) shots in the playoffs, and looking like a prized jewel nestled inside basketball’s brightest treasure chest. This year, Ibaka starts at power forward for a team that’s undoubtedly capable of winning a championship. Everything looks to be flowing naturally, as if Ibaka’s career has been predetermined to align itself with the league’s next line of two-way power forwards capable of changing a basketball game’s trajectory on both ends. There’s one hitch in the plan, though. One question that has no answers. Why is Serge Ibaka regressing?
For major portions of last season’s Western Conference Finals against Dallas, Ibaka was assigned the task of defending Dirk Nowitzki on an island (aka Mission: Impossible). The results rivaled the site of a gruesome murder scene, with Ibaka losing time after time, looking undisciplined and eager on ball fakes, and too feeble to block Nowitzki’s famed one legged fall away. It was probably the first time in his life where Ibaka felt completely helpless on a basketball court—or at least the first time in five years. People surely consoled him with “there’s nothing you could do” condolences, but in reality that doesn’t help. Ibaka knows he’s a professional playing a bottom line sport, and the bottom line was he allowed his man to continuously obliterate OKC’s chances of advancing to the Finals. Did the stigma from that series latch itself onto Ibaka’s back as he ventured into 2012? One would certainly hope not, and the chances are slim that it did. But why has he fallen by the way side as the Thunder’s distant fourth option? How has he become a player nobody mentions? His PER, usage rate, and TS% are all down.
Right now there’s a good chance when Ibaka takes the floor that he won’t get to the free-throw line. He won’t score in double figures or grab 10-plus rebounds. Yes, there’s the near guarantee he blocks two shots, but both are probable to land in a fan’s lap, swatted with irresponsible enthusiasm.
Last year Ibaka was the 56th most efficient player in basketball, with the spot up jumper serving the team’s if-all-else-fails weapon of choice. This year he’s the 174th with a little over 20% of his offensive production coming on the backs of others via the offensive rebound. This is awesome in its own way, but in the modern NBA, where the good teams start power forwards who can wander outside and knock down a consistent jumper, if the put back has become Ibaka’s main form of offensive contribution then a problem has been posed.
The numbers are subtly changing, but more importantly, after Westbrook’s extension was inked, the Thunder basically said to Serge, “Look, our future is invested in two—soon to be three—players moving forward. Unless you take less to stay with us, there’s a good chance you’ll be on another team in a couple years, but in the meantime bless us with five shots a game while we run maybe one play in your direction.”
Next season he’ll make less than Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook, Nick Collison, Thabo Sefolosha, and Eric Maynor.
It’s a tough pill to swallow for a 22-year-old who’s on the cusp of tasting legitimate fame. How he plays moving forward could be the ultimate decider for not only the Oklahoma City Thunder’s unprecedented, basement brewed enterprise, but more importantly, the next handful of NBA championships.