Almost There…that is, to the tip off of the NBA regular season. The Oklahoma City Thunder finished their preseason on Wednesday night with a loss to a Derrick Rose rejuvenated Chicago Bulls squad attempting to make up for lost time (as a brief aside, Derrick Rose looked good, which reminded me that I am more excited to see a Westbrook/Rose showdown than any other player to player matchup this season). OKC will have a full week off before flying out to Salt Lake City to face off against a completely retooled Utah Jazz.
The Thunder’s regular season tips off very different from the past two seasons. No Westbrook. No established sixth man. Surprisingly young: No less than one-third of the roster will be in their rookie or sophomore season, and two-thirds of the roster is aged 25 or younger. The start comes with major questions that have many wondering if this squad has been slowly regressing since that euphoric Game 1 victory over Miami in the 2012 NBA Finals. Is Russell Westbrook really healthy? Who will be the Thunder’s sixth man and can he provide the production Oklahoma City has traditionally needed out of that role? Will the Thunder ever find a functional offensive system? Can Oklahoma City get offensive production out of the center position? Many seem to believe that these questions would not exist if The Beard were still donning blue. Many say that OKC was almost there.
For all that has been said and written about the Thunder since the Westbrook injury (for goodness sakes, speculation has already begun about whether Durant and/or Westbrook are going to bolt OKC when their contracts expire after 3/4 seasons), it seems most have forgotten the passport to Oklahoma City’s target destination of NBA Kingdom. That passport can’t be found by answering any of the above questions. That’s because the passport lies in the cockpit of Air Congo.
Serge Ibaka is arguably the reason that Harden was dealt to Houston. Simply put, it was impractical to keep both Harden and Ibaka. It would have made filling out the roster a near impossibility, leaving the Big 4 to try and take down the NBA by themselves…and maybe that feat would have actually been realistic in an era sans Lebron James. So Sam Presti chose to sign Ibaka to a worthy contract first, and let the chips fall where they may with a less-than-max offer to Harden and now Ibaka enters this season in the first year of this four-year contract making just shy of $12.5M/year. That’s big money. Big money is for big-time players. So the real question for Oklahoma City is: Is Ibaka a big-time player? The answer…Well…he’s almost there.
About a month ago, I read an article about two co-pilots confessing to sleeping in the cockpit at the same time during a flight. It sounds like a serious and grave situation but in reality, with advances in technology, commercial pilots jobs are far less entrenched in moment by moment flying. They are smart and trained, able to discern when they can afford to take a nap, and when they need to be alert and focused. The pilot of Air Congo has been in mid-flight, alternating between naps and periods of high focus. This has proven to be neither good nor bad for the Thunder. A pilot demands rest on a long journey – and Oklahoma City is very much on a long journey. The Thunder needs Ibaka to have the endurance and stamina to see this flight to the end. If you know anything about flying, you know the most dangerous time is those few moments approaching the runway through the execution of the landing. That approach starts this season.
So what will it take for Air Congo to successfully land the plane? For sure, he cannot afford to take any steps backward as a player.
Progression is essential, so here are three points of progression necessary for Ibaka to land this flight:
1. Communication with the tower – Ibaka needs to be the anchor of the defense, and the key to good defense is communication. Perkins has been the that man for Oklahoma City, but if the Thunder want to be a powerhouse night in, night out and avoid the periodic breakdowns that have plagued this team defensively, Ibaka needs to take over that role, especially since he has averaged over 30 minutes per game now that Harden is gone.
2. Lower the landing gear – Ibaka has to develop a post-game. He needs to be able to dig down into the opposing offenses and make them pay when they put smaller, more athletic defenders on him to take away the shots at which he excels. Ibaka obviously has the mid-range game down solid and his long-range game is excellent by a power-forward’s standard…yet for all his athleticism and strength, he could not post up Harden (who is a horrible defender) in the playoffs last year. Part of the issue with his offense in the post is his hands. They have SLOWLY improved from his rookie season, but in order for his post game to work, he needs to have more control with the ball receiving passes, taking the ball to the rim, and dribbling the ball into the lane when the defense breaks down on his midrange jumpers. He also needs to work on his footwork, which is very erratic and unfocused when occupying the paint. His lack of focus on his feet inhibits his ability to take efficient steps toward the basket and use his size and strength to punish his opponents. Developing the ability to combine finesse and power in order to make the necessary hard baskets…and the easy ones as well – that missed put-back in Game 4 against Houston last spring was brutal…is the difference between a Thunder squad that glides into the terminal, and a Thunder squad that is stranded on the runway.
3. Apply the brakes – We hear the phrase “The game will slow down for him” all the time in sports, especially when moving from college into the pros. It is an incredibly accurate description of what needs to happen for young athletes in the process of becoming a better performer. This process is mostly accomplished with Durant. Westbrook has made progress every year, and his larger issue deals with finding balance between what makes him great (freak of nature athleticism), and logical basketball. Ibaka still makes hasty errors in judgment and while no player is going to play perfect Ibaka is capable of far more consistency on the court, and with a player like Russell Westbrook running the point, the Thunder need that consistency. Make no mistake about it: This is still the Durant/Westbrook show. We know what to expect from them, and we almost always get it, but we’re talking about winning NBA Titles where Westbrook+Durant has proven to be insufficient in the Lebron era, so it is safe to say that as Ibaka goes, so go the Thunder.
Reggie Jackson could be the second coming of James Harden, and Steven Adams could provide a much needed lift to Oklahoma City’s front-court offense, but those passports won’t grant the Thunder entry into NBA Kingdom. Now entering his fifth season, it is time for Serge Ibaka to land the plane. The time is now for the pilot to be alert and focused.
The fasten seatbelt sign is on, fans aboard Air Congo. Buckle Up! We’re Almost There.