Serge Ibaka a big winner for Oklahoma City
The decision to opt for 'Air Congo' ahead of James Harden a winner for Oklahoma City
After the NBA finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder faced a difficult question. If they couldn't afford to keep both league blocks-leader Serge Ibaka and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, which one would stay?
The Thunder ended up securing Ibaka with a long-term extension this off-season, providing the first signal that Harden's days in Oklahoma City might be numbered. With Ibaka's deal done, there wasn't enough salary-cap space left to come close to Harden's demands and he was shipped off to Houston in a trade just before the season.
Meanwhile, Ibaka quietly has been giving Oklahoma City their money's worth. As one of the NBA's most accurate shooters, he is averaging a career-high 14.3 points, and leading the Thunder in rebounding (8.5).
"I work hard. I try to do the best I can, getting better and better," Ibaka said. "I don't want just to be like people used to know Serge Ibaka four years ago. Now is my fourth year in the NBA, so I try to get better at everything."
When Ibaka first joined the Thunder, the expectations for the Republic of Congo native were minimal. Coach Scott Brooks repeatedly said his role was simply about playing defence and providing energy.
That was a starting point after Ibaka was the 20th pick in the 2008 draft and spent an extra season playing in Europe to develop before heading to the NBA.
Since then, he has grown - not only developing his game but learning English. He earned an endorsement deal with Sprite around the time the player nicknamed "Air Congo" appeared in last year's slam dunk competition and threw one down after taking off from the free-throw line.
He moved into the starting line-up and led the league in blocks for two years, having even more impact because of how his defence helped trigger Oklahoma City's fast-break offence with All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Now he's getting more offensive chances with the departure of Harden, the NBA's top-scoring reserve last season. So far this season, Ibaka is averaging about five more points and his 2.9-block average is behind only Milwaukee's Larry Sanders.
"Obviously, his offensive game is expanded and he's still blocking shots and rebounding," said veteran Nick Collison, Ibaka's back-up. "But I think his focus is a lot better. Defensively, he is where he should be. He's not getting lost. He has been great for us."
Ibaka's biggest offensive impact comes from rebounds and springing free for mid-range jumpers when defences crowd Durant and Westbrook on the pick-and-roll. It's a shot Ibaka has mastered over the past few years, taking dozens of them at the end of practice.
"He is a machine," Collison said. "He's been that way since he's been here. He works and he puts in as much time as anybody. He is very serious about his work and it shows. He has improved a lot since he's been here."
The Thunder went into the weekend percentage points ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers for the NBA's best record, with a difficult stretch ahead featuring 11 of their next 13 games on the road. It starts with a back-to-back set at Toronto (today, Hong Kong time) and at Washington.
"He is playing well. Teams are playing small against us, so he is hurting them on the offensive glass and he's making teams go big," Durant said. "That's to our advantage when we've got the big [men] in there. He's doing a great job on the offensive boards, shooting the basketball well."