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.”