The Oklahoma City Thunder have been decimated by injuries for essentially their entire season. Kevin Durant started the season injured and has only played in 27 games, and he might not play again this season. Russell Westbrook has missed 15 games this season. Serge Ibaka will miss 4-6 weeks following knee surgery. Others have been hurt as well, and Nick Collison is going to miss at least 10 days with a sprained ankle.
Still, the Thunder have a two-game lead on the New Orleans Pelicans for the last playoff spot and the right to haunt Steve Kerr’s nightmares for the foreseeable future. The fact that the Thunder are still in the thick of things out West is a testament to the depth of the team and the coaching staff. Oh yeah, and Westbrook is playing like a clinically insane person and dropping monster numbers on a nightly basis.
Ibaka’s injury hurts, but it doesn’t crush the Thunder for the time being. This is a team that has an MVP candidate doing unreal basketball things and a frontcourt that boasts some legitimate depth. At the trade deadline, GM Sam Presti pulled off a heist of Enes Kanter from Utah. Kanter complements second-year center Steven Adams and impressive rookie Mitch McGary quite nicely.
Before examining what Adams and Kanter bring to the table, it’s important to see what they’ve been getting from Ibaka this season and what they’ll be missing with him out. Rest assured, the end isn’t here for the Thunder yet … unless the Brow keeps putting up unreal stat lines and the Pelicans get healthy. Then look out, Russ.
Much has been made of Ibaka’s shot selection this season. He’s finding his way further and further from the hoop. His shot chart shows that he’s shooting from everywhere on the court:
Simply comparing his numbers over the last two years proves that he’s changing his game and turning into a Chris Bosh type of player. It’s staggering how many more threes Ibaka has taken this season compared to the number of dunks:
|2-Pt Field Goals|
|% of FGA by Distance||FG% by Distance||Dunks|
|Season||FG%||Dist.||2P||0-3||3-10||10-16||16 <3||3P||2P||0-3||3-10||10-16||16 <3||3P||%Ast’d||%FGA||Md.|
The most intriguing stat for Ibaka is that he has increased is shot distribution of three-point attempts by 20 percent from last year to this year. As one might expect, his dunk attempts have decreased dramatically.
He’s also absolutely killing the mid-range game this year. According to NBA.com, Ibaka ranks 12th in the league among those who attempt at least four mid-range attempts per game, shooting those shots at a 45 percent clip.
While a lot has been made about Ibaka moving outside of the paint more and more this season, it has opened the lane for Westbrook to slash through the defense and get to the rim without much backlash. That shooting also makes the pick-and-pop game with Westbrook more dangerous.
Defensively, it goes without saying that Ibaka is a fantastic defender and rim protector. Among players who play at least 25 minutes per game and have opponents attempt at least four field goals per game at the rim, Ibaka holds opponents to a league-best 40.8 percent shooting, per SportVU.
Ibaka is second in the league in blocks and blocks per game. The only player ahead of him? Super-freak Anthony Davis. So on the surface, it would seem like the Thunder are in real trouble. However, crafty moves and solid drafting by Presti has them in position to survive in the short-term without Ibaka.
The Thunder are going to miss the rim-protecting prowess of Ibaka, but Adams is someone who can fit in and keep the team afloat on the defensive end as he returns from injury.
Adams is coming off an injury that has limited him to seven games post-All Star break. In those seven games, Adams is averaging 9.4 points, 9.7 boards and 1.6 blocks … all with a club on his hand.
Adams is holding opponents to 48.2 percent shooting at the rim this season, according to SportVU, and opponents are shooting well below their average on two-point attempts when he’s defending. According to NBA.com, he’s holding opponents to 6.6 percent below their season average while attempting a shot less than six feet from the hoop.
And while offense isn’t Adams’s specialty, the Thunder aren’t too much worse on the offensive end with Adams on the court, per NBA.com. So cause for concern on that end shouldn’t be at a high with Adams as he gets back into game form. Adams is no Ibaka, but he’s also no slouch on the court. This is a team that has been treading water all season, and it’s no doubt that with Adams healthy, he’s going to help them try and fight off the Pelicans.
Then there’s Kanter, who was a steal from Utah. I’ve long been under the impression that big men take a little longer to carve their niche in the NBA, giving Kanter plenty of time to prove himself. The big man has been great offensively for Oklahoma City, averaging 16.5 points while shooting 55.9 percent from the field since the trade. The Thunder have an offensive rating of 109.7 with him on the court, per NBA.com.
The concern is the defense.
While Kanter is on the court, the Thunder have a defensive rating of 109.0, which is awful. When he’s on the bench, the defensive rating drops to 102.4. Maybe he hasn’t adapted to the scheme, or maybe he’s destined to simply be an offensive force for OKC, because he was a poor defender in Utah as well. Either way, the time is now to step up with Ibaka and Durant out.
The Thunder may be able to stave off the Pelicans despite these key injuries. However, the first-round series against the Golden State Warriors would be rough, even if Westbrook destroys everybody they put in front of him.
If this is the year the Thunder miss the playoffs or get bounced in the first round, it’s not the end of the world, although Durant’s injury is somewhat concerning moving forward. Even so, Presti has put them in good position moving forward, in part because he has collected a stable of quality big men. In the NBA, you can never have too many quality bigs.