Labeled as a “basketball unicorn” last season due to his ability to protect the rim at an elite level and make over 37 percent of his threes, Serge Ibaka was one of the bright spots on an otherwise disappointing Oklahoma City Thunder team last season.
While Ibaka’s season indicated that he was unable to carry an offense — much like Kevin Love or Blake Griffin — his improvement on the offensive end combined with his elite-level production on the defensive end was one of the reasons many considered the Thunder as favorites to upset the Warriors this season.
But Ibaka hasn’t lived up to those expectations and has disappointed those expecting to see a continuation on last year’s progress, despite some numbers looking strikingly similar.
Ibaka has averaged almost exactly the number of minutes as he did last season (32.6 and 33.1, respectively), and the rest of his raw numbers are similar as well (12.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, shooting 47.6 percent from the field and 2.5 blocks this season compared to 14.3, 7.8, 47.6 percent shooting and 2.4 last season). His usage percentage is almost identical; his assist and turnover percentage have remained largely unchanged. And I can tell you from experience that his hands seem to still be made of the same stone that has driven Thunder fans crazy in recent seasons.
That is where the similarities stop, however, as a deeper dive into some of the numbers does a better job of revealing his struggles.
Ibaka attempted 123 total three-point attempts in his first fives seasons before hoisting up over 200 last season alone. If he maintains his present pace, he’ll put up about 116 threes this season. While the attempts are slightly troubling, the bigger issue is the significant decline in percentage from last season. Ibaka converted on over 37 percent of his three-point attempts last season but is currently only making a third of his attempts at present ( 8-for-24 on the season).
Furthermore, while he was an extremely efficient shooter from the corner (40.5 percent) last year, Ibaka only took 18 percent of his three-point attempts from there. This season, that number is over 95 percent, and he’s converting on less than 35 percent of those shots. There was no hesitation last season from Ibaka on hoisting a three when he was above the break (either the wing or the top of the key), but Ibaka no longer looks to shoot from the three-point line unless he’s positioned in the corner.
Those shots that were coming at the three-point line aren’t being redistributed to more efficient areas on the floor, as both his percentage of shots at the rim and his free throw rate remain largely unchanged. Instead, Ibaka is shooting almost 12 percent more shots between 16 feet and the three-point line, and despite him being one of the best high-volume shooters in the league from that area, it’s still one of the most inefficient shots in the league.
When Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook share the floor with Ibaka, the Thunder’s offense is nearly unstoppable, with Ibaka looking more like he did last season than this one. In that lineup, over 14 percent of Ibaka’s shots are threes (last season this number was over 26 percent), 45 percent of his shots are from the mid-range and 20 percent are at the rim. When Westbrook and Ibaka share the floor, those numbers are 11.5 percent from three, 62 percent from mid-range and 23 percent at the rim.
But even more eye-popping is when neither Westbrook nor Durant share the floor with Ibaka, he’s shooting 85 percent of his shots from the mid-range, leaving almost nothing left for the most efficient spots on the floor.
Ibaka clearly does some of his best work in certain lineups which leads to a closer look at some of the lineups new coach Billy Donovan has played this season.
Obviously any lineup featuring Durant and/or Westbrook will help Ibaka, but Ibaka and Durant have only shared the court for 20 total minutes without Westbrook, and in those lineups, Ibaka has been the lone big man for less than six minutes.
Using Ibaka as the center is an experiment the Thunder have been reluctant to use as most of their depth is in the front court. Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Nick Collison, Mitch McGary and Ibaka are all, at worst, average NBA talent, which leaves little room for Durant at the small-ball forward with Ibaka as the rim protector.
But playing this duo leaves little room for error for the opposing defense, as Durant is too tall for an average wing player and too good of a ball-handler for an average big man, and Ibaka can be the elite stretch center that few teams have.
None of this is to say Ibaka has had a negative impact on the Thunder this season. Nylon Calculus’ rim protection statistic rates him among the elite rim protectors saving 1.55 points per game (adjusted for position). Utah’s Rudy Gobert leads the league in that stat saving 3.37 points per game, but the majority of the players above him fall within a point of his number. The Thunder’s defense was terrible through the first 3 weeks of the season, but in the last three games the team had defensive ratings of 94.2 (Jazz), 96.7 (Nets) and 94.1 (Pistons). All of those would rank near the top of the league on the season. A lot of this can be contributed to the return of Durant, but Ibaka’s defense deserves at least some of the credit.
The Thunder don’t need Ibaka to average 20 points per game, 10 rebounds per game or even carry the defense to a top defensive rating. For the Thunder to reach the heights they aspire to, they need Ibaka to be the type of player who is one of the unique players in the league.
All lineup data is from nbawowy.com and basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.