Can the Thunder Survive Serge Ibaka's Season-Ending Injury?
The Oklahoma City Thunder had their title hopes dashed last season when Russell Westbrook went down with a season-ending knee injury in the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs. Now, for the second straight year, the Thunder will be missing one of their most important players for their playoff run, as they lost shot-blocking expert and all-around energy guy, Serge Ibaka, to a season-ending calf injury in Game 7 of their second-round matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The combination of Westbrook and Kevin Durant make the Thunder look unstoppable at times, but Ibaka represented the team’s defensive glue and often the Thunder’s much needed third scorer. His absence will likely be a big chink in OKC’s armor and it has many people already marking an asterisk next to their season - much like last year - as one that got away due to unfortunate circumstances.
While they certainly don’t seem as strong without Ibaka, the Thunder might not be dead in the water just yet. Let’s see what the numbers say about how important Ibaka has been and what impact his replacements could have in the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs.
Ibaka’s Offensive Impact
Serge Ibaka’s versatile skill set and two-way potential were a big part of the reason why the Thunder stuck with him over James Harden when it became obvious that they couldn’t afford to keep both budding stars. The jury is still out on whether that was the right call to make or not, but there’s no denying that Ibaka has been a major contributor to the Thunder’s success over the last few seasons.
This year, in particular, was a career campaign for Serge. His 15.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game represented career highs, as did his 38.3% three-point shooting and 78.4% from the line. For a man that was once considered somewhat of a one-trick pony for his extreme shot-blocking numbers (he has led the league in total blocks the last four years), Ibaka has developed his game in a number of important areas on the offensive end as well.
His mid-range game, for example, has improved immensely during his five-year NBA career. He shot a career high 43.56% of his shot attempts from that range this year and hit them at a rate of 46.95% (compared to a league average of 39.46%). Of big men that took at least 200 attempts from that range this season, Ibaka’s success rate trails only noted mid-range assassins Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Bosh, and David West.
Ibaka’s shooting ability has opened up lanes for Westbrook and Durant, as defenses have no choice but to respect Ibaka’s range and are a lot less willing to sag off of him from just about any spot on the floor to cover drives. Even his 23 made three-pointers this season represented a career high and that shot is increasingly becoming a part of his offensive game.
Ibaka’s Defensive Impact
Of course, where Ibaka’s bread is buttered is on the defensive end, where he is already a two-time member of the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team (’12 and ’13) and could very well be there again this year. This season, he led the league in total blocks (219) and was second in both blocks per game (2.7) and block percentage (6.7%).
Of all players that played at least half the season (41 games) and faced a minimum of five shots at the rim per game, Serge’s stingy 43.9% allowed on 9.5 attempts faced represent the third-lowest percentage in the NBA, behind Roy Hibbert and Robin Lopez.
Furthermore, his 4.4 defensive win shares had him at 11th in the league and his 9.6 total win shares had him at 17th overall. His 8.7 rating in our own nERD metric placed him at 16th overall on our NBA Player Power Rankings as well. Finally, his raw plus-minus on the season of +406 ranked him at 14th in the entire association.
To say he could be hard to replace might be a bit of an understatement. Of course, they’ll receive no sympathy from the Spurs and will have to try their best without him. So, which way should they go?
Nick Collison is the ultimate ready-when-called-upon guy and is the most likely player to take Ibaka’s place in the starting lineup. Ibaka’s only missed three contests in the last four years, so it’s not like this data is easy to come by, but in the one game he missed this season, Collison got the call. Nick put up 8 points on 3 of 3 shooting from the field and 6 rebounds in a weird throwaway loss to the Jazz, but was still a +1 in 30 minutes played in an 11-point loss.
Typical Nick Collison.
With Ibaka not available in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Clips, Collison played 9.5 minutes and had 1 point, 1 defensive rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal, and drew 1 charge and 1 other defensive foul. What makes that line the ultimate Nick Collison special? He was also a team-high +11 in the final frame.
Collison might not have the same highlight reel impact that Ibaka has, but he has always been a solid intangibles guy and all-around contributor when asked to step up. He led the team in average plus-minus while on the floor this season at +17.0 and has the potential to be a serviceable stop-gap measure while the Thunder are without Ibaka.
Rookie Steven Adams represents a bit of a wild card in the fallout of this Ibaka injury. His biggest talent in his young career has been in his ability to royally piss off players on the opposing team with his rough and tumble approach, but he might not be able to draw the sage and savvy Spurs into losing their cool quite so easily.
Where Adams will have to make his impact will be on the glass and in protecting the rim. He played a career high 40 minutes in Game 7 against the Clippers, putting up an impressive 10 points and 11 rebounds, while pacing the Thunder with a raw plus-minus of +17. He’s a bit unseasoned, but there might be no better stage for his coming out party than the Western Conference Finals. Collison will likely start, but Adams could have the opportunity to extrapolate on the potential we’ve seen in his 8.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per 36 minutes played this season.
A Combination of Both
Nick Collison and Steven Adams represent good options to eat up the minutes left on the table by Ibaka, but both players will need to stay out of foul trouble to be effective. Collison averaged 5.0 fouls per-36 this season, while Adams registered an unsightly 6.1. Thankfully for both of them, Kendrick Perkins should take the pressure off when it comes to guarding Tim Duncan.
According to SportVU’s player tracking data, Perk held Duncan to 5 of 18 shooting (27.8%) in the 19 minutes they matched up directly in the season series, which the Thunder swept 4-0. Ibaka only played half the amount of time on Duncan this season and might not have drawn him very often on defensive assignments anyway to avoid foul trouble.
In the meantime, Collison and Adams haven’t exactly been defensive slouches themselves in this year’s playoffs. Of all players that have faced at least 3.5 shots per game at the rim during this postseason, Collison has allowed the lowest field goal percentage at 37.8% (1.4 made on 3.8 attempts per contest), while Adams is fourth with 40.4% (1.6 made on 3.9 attempts).
We’ll have to see if they can stay successful filling in for Ibaka, likely facing many more attempts in increased minutes against a team that has two of the league’s most dangerous drivers in the game in Tony Parker (league-leading 12.3 drives per game in the playoffs) and Manu Ginobili (7.8 drives per game this postseason). Of course, if replacing Ibaka directly with another big doesn’t end up being the way to go, this might be the Thunder’s chance to go small.
Many NBA pundits have been clamoring for Thunder Coach Scott Brooks to go small for a long time, with a possible solution being to bring in Reggie Jackson to take some of the ball-handling burden off of Russell Westbrook’s shoulders. With Ibaka going down, the way to replace his minutes might be in shifting Durant to the power forward position to couple with any of Perk, Collison, or Adams and having Reggie come in to fill the void left by Ibaka.
Against the Spurs this year, in particular, Jackson averaged 21.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.3 steals, while shooting 67.9% from the floor, 72.7% from deep, and 83.3% from the line. His scoring average against the Spurs was his highest against any team this season. One would suspect that it came as a result of Westbrook missing almost half the year, but he was there for three of the four games against the Spurs, meaning Jackson only drew one start in those contests.
In 125 minutes of action against the Spurs this season, the Thunder had a net rating of 16.5 with Jackson on the floor and -4.5 with him off it. The two top lineups for the Thunder that had at least 10 minutes of floor time against San Antonio this year (based on net rating) both contained Reggie Jackson. In fact, the Thunder’s best lineup this entire season with a net rating of 46.7, was the regular starters (Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Perkins, and Thabo Sefolosha) with Jackson in place of Perk. Ibaka is obviously a big missing piece, but the excuse to play Jackson more could counteract it. It’s worth a try, in the very least.
Ibaka’s absence for the remainder of these playoffs is certainly a bummer, as we NBA fans will be robbed of a full-strength rematch of the compelling Western Conference Finals from 2012 and possibly a second iteration of our generation’s Bird vs. Magic in Durant vs. LeBron James in the NBA Finals.
One stat being thrown around quite a bit in the wake of the Ibaka injury is the fact that the Thunder have a defensive rating of 93.0 (points per 100 possessions) while Ibaka is on the floor against the Spurs this season, compared to 120.8 when he’s off.
Lost in this is the fact that the offensive rating is a difference of 103.8 (points per 100 possessions) when he’s on and a ridiculous 133.7 when he’s off. The resulting difference in net rating is actually 2.1 points per 100 possessions better when he’s off the floor. Besides, It’s a small sample size, so don’t think that Ibaka’s absence has automatically punched OKC’s ticket home based on one flashy statistic.
It’s important to remember, after all, that the fat lady has yet to sing and that this Thunder team is young, deep, and full of intriguing options. There likely won’t be any one answer to replacing the production of Serge Ibaka, but the Thunder might have the pieces to make a run at doing so, between Collison’s intangibles, Adams’ upside, both of their ability to protect the rim, and the successful small-ball lineups featuring Jackson that just might see more floor time now due to necessity.
Now, let’s stop speculating and just toss the ball up and see where it lands. Through it all, our algorithms are projecting the odds of the Spurs winning this series at 55.31%, even with the injury. Considering the Spurs have an edge on home-court advantage alone, that margin is slim enough to imagine that the Thunder could possibly overcome their newest set of adverse circumstances.