Serge Ibaka is an NBA unicorn. The list of big men that can shoot from the perimeter, protect the rim and switch onto smaller players is very, very short. If we're being honest, it may only have one line right now. (You can talk me into considering a few other players, but they can't do all three consistently enough.)
In a way, that's Ibaka's curse. He's blessed with frightening athleticism, chiseled muscles, massive arms, lean legs and a cornucopia of unique skills. He makes everything look so natural, which means his rare mistakes stand out even more. It's common to hear laments about his lack of a post game, his underwhelming rebounding or the rare times a speedy point guard does drive by him. He becomes defined by the few things he can't do instead of the many things he can.
That's too bad, because he does so many things. Start on defense, where his value is most evident. He's among the league's most fearsome rim protectors, capable of appearing out of nowhere to erase and alter sure layups. Oklahoma City's scheme is less aggressive than it was under Scott Brooks, but it still relies on Ibaka covering for lapses by its less aware perimeter defenders. That results in blocks that spook even the most fearless drivers.
That's why it's odd that Ibaka still gets a reputation for chasing blocks at the expense of good positional defense. Players only hit 42.4 percent of their shots when Ibaka is contesting at the rim. Only Rudy Gobert and Andrew Bogut hold players to a lower percentage among big men that play more than 18 minutes a game.
If Ibaka merely altered the shots he actually blocks, that number would be significantly higher. DeAndre Jordan, for example, holds opponents to 46.6 percent shooting at the rim, which is excellent, but not on Ibaka's level. Hassan Whiteside, who somewhat more deservingly is criticized for chasing actual swats over shots alters, allows opponents to shoot just under 48 percent at the rim. Those are fine marks, but Ibaka is on a completely different level. He single-handedly turns what should be an easy shot into the equivalent of a semi-open 17-footer.
Some of that is intimidation. Increasingly, it's also sound positioning. Ibaka is blocking fewer shots while altering more.
Ibaka is no defensive one-trick pony, though. Can Gobert, Jordan or Whiteside stone quick guards on switches? Ibaka can and must do so multiple times every game. Draymond Green is the only player in the league that has defended more isolation possessions than Ibaka this season, per Synergy data. Players at Ibaka's position have no business stopping these plays.
It's a huge mistake to overlook Ibaka's offensive contributions, though. A team with Westbrook and Durant doesn't need more scorers. It needs shooters, screen setters and ball movers. The list of big men capable of doing all three and accepting fewer touches as part of the bargain is extremely short. Again, it might just be one line.
Ibaka is one of the league's elite shooting big men. He cans 45.1 percent from 16-23 feet, a mark bested by only eight big men with at least 75 attempts. He shoots 37 percent on two three-point attempts a game and has steadily upped his volume as the year has progressed. He can shoot off the pick-and-roll and he can shoot when spotted up, which makes him a perfect complement to Westbrook and Durant.
He's also become a great screen setter after struggling in that area in past years. Westbrook and Durant are great on their own, but Ibaka consistently helps them get open.
Yet he's made his biggest strides as a passer. The assist numbers may not reflect that development, but he's now as good as any big at catching the ball at the free throw line and making the right decision. In the past, his only move when catching passes from Westbrook and Durant was to shoot 17-foot jumpers. That made it easier for teams to trap Westbrook and Durant. Now, Ibaka's able to read the defensive pressure and find the open man.
Most teams require two, three or even four players to fill all these needs, which is a problem because only five players can share the court. Any lineup they trot out gives something away. Playing a shooting big man means yielding defensive cover, and vice versa. Playing a traditional rim protector leaves defenses vulnerable when teams go small, and vice versa. These teams can have all the star power in the world, but sooner or later, someone will be able to expose the trade-off they must accept.
Thanks to Serge Ibaka, the Thunder never has to make those tough choices.