The biggest challenge facing Serge Ibaka this season might be perception.
He's here and James Harden is not.
And no matter how dominant the league's three-time reigning shot blocking leader is, there might be nothing he can do to reject attitudes that have stemmed from that fact.
Because for more than a year, the league-wide narrative has led many to believe the Thunder “chose” Ibaka over Harden. Had Oklahoma City re-signed Harden first instead of Ibaka, the Thunder's star-studded trio still would be intact, or so goes the narrative.
Now, no matter what type of season Ibaka strings together it doesn't seem likely to silence the critics so long as Harden continues on his path of perennial All-Star stardom down in Houston.
That can't stop Ibaka from trying.
Regardless of the truth — the Thunder tried to retain both by offering each of them new deals only to see Ibaka and not Harden accept — Oklahoma City needs Ibaka to be better than ever.
Entering his fifth season, the first of his contentious four-year, $49 million extension, Ibaka must now take on the role of third scoring option. More than that, it's time he also blossoms into the Thunder's best post defender. Oklahoma City's championship hopes might depend on it.
Harden is long gone, and Kevin Martin walked this summer. That leaves Ibaka as one of the few remaining players the Thunder can count on to complement Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Everyone else outside of Reggie Jackson is either a defensive specialist or a big fat question mark.
“He has to continue to have an impact on the game,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of Ibaka.
Brooks won't cite specific stats that he needs from Ibaka or any of his players. But it stands to reason that Ibaka could improve on his more than respectable averages of 13.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and three blocked shots last season.
Additional minutes alone would boost those figures. Ibaka averaged a career-high 31.1 minutes last year. But Ibaka's development, coupled with the Thunder expected to play small ball lineups more this season, could leave Ibaka on the floor for longer stretches.
When extrapolated over 36 minutes, or typical starter's minutes, Ibaka's statistical production last season was 15.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocked shots — numbers that suggests he could be a 16-point, 10-rebound performer given the opportunity this season.
“I think he's always going to be a presence defensively for us,” said Thunder general manager Sam Presti. “Statistically, that's relatively proven his impact on the team … But there are so many arteries to his game that I think will continue to be developed over time. He's still a very young basketball player. Just because we've been seeing him on a more regular basis doesn't make him less likely to improve.”
Ibaka said he took three weeks off this summer before getting back in the gym focusing on his improvement. Entering this season, Ibaka said he wants to become a better defensive rebounder, post defender and passer. After unveiling a smooth 3-point shot last season, Ibaka also said he wants to improve his accuracy from that distance.
Though he didn't spend time under the tutelage of Hall of Fame big man Hakeem Olajuwon this summer, Ibaka said he did work on post moves and putting the ball on the floor.
“I'm sure I will be better than last year because I put in a lot of work this summer,” Ibaka said.
Last year's postseason, Ibaka said, taught him that he needed to learn to be a threat without Russell Westbrook. Without his starting point guard, the man responsible for 38 percent of his field goals, Ibaka's scoring average fell a shade in the postseason and his shooting percentage plummeted.
“Without Russell we learned a lot last year,” Ibaka said. “That's why I'm sure each one of us worked on his game. I've been working on my game trying to create my shot and make sure everything is right if Russ is (available) or not … I hope it will pay off.”
Brooks said Ibaka's improvement with his left hand has been evident in practices.
“A lot of guys are strong one hand. But to be a really, really good player you've got to be able to put the ball on the floor with either hand,” Brooks said. “But he's done a great job of finishing around the basket with his left hand. You can tell that was a point of emphasis on his workouts all summer long.”
Defensively, teammates also have seen growth in Ibaka.
“I think he's really locking in,” said Kendrick Perkins. “I can tell he's really focusing on sliding his feet, getting down, guarding, talking. I think the biggest thing I've seen is his communication got a whole lot better as far as calling the defense and talking the defense. So that's a good thing.”