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Oklahoma City Thunder: Serge Ibaka injury shows that OKC's top-heavy roster leaves it vulnerable

Rare talent elevates NBA teams. That’s the way most NBA champs are built. It’s a tried and true method, but it’s fragile.
by Berry Tramel Published: May 24, 2014

The Thunder has a championship-caliber roster. Of that there is no doubt. But there are different kinds of championship rosters.

The Thunder has the top-heavy variety. As in, vulnerable.

That’s what we’ve learned from the first two games of the Western Conference Finals. The value of Serge Ibaka, and the mighty gulf in talent and impact between the Thunder’s three elite young stars and the rest of the squad.

Rare talent elevates NBA teams. Rare talent certainly describes Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Ibaka; the first two offensively, the latter defensively, a truth we know for certain after watching the Spurs average 117 points a game so far in this series.

That’s the way most NBA champs are built. The Heatles. The Lakers of Kobe, Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The Celtics of Garnett, Allen and Pierce. The Spurs back in the day when their now-aged stars were in their primes. It’s a tried and true method, so long as you can collect such talent.

But it’s fragile. A strained tendon (Kevin Garnett 2009) or a torn ACL (Derrick Rose 2012) or a torn meniscus (Russell Westbrook 2013) changes the playoff landscape. No matter how valiant the effort, no matter how determined the cause, the Celtics weren’t winning without Garnett, and the Bulls weren’t winning without Rose, and the Thunder wasn’t winning without Westbrook.

Which explains the joy in Oklahoma on Friday, when the Thunder announced that Ibaka might return from a strained calf injury that kept him even from traveling to San Antonio for the first two games of the series. Perhaps Ibaka might even play Game 3 Sunday night in OKC.

Such a proclamation restored to all of Thunderland, inside and outside Thunder headquarters off Britton Road, a missing ingredient: hope.

The Thunder has no hope without Ibaka. The Thunder has talked bravely; even played bravely for awhile, leading midway through the second quarter of Game 2 and midway through the third quarter of Game 1. But the truth is, the Thunder can’t beat the Spurs without Ibaka. The roster isn’t built for it.

A few NBA title contenders have deep and gradual rosters. These Spurs, for instance. The difference in impact between Tony Parker, who I assume is San Antone’s MVP, and Manu Ginobili or Danny Green, no better than the fifth-most important Spur, is not gargantuan. Some games, Green will have more impact than will Parker. Some games, Ginobili will have more impact than Kawhi Leonard.

But that’s not the kind of roster the Thunder has. Kendrick Perkins will never impact a game like Ibaka will. Caron Butler never will impact a game like Kevin Durant will. Thabo Sefolosha never will impact a game like Russell Westbrook will.

These Spurs are reminiscent of the 2004 Pistons, who were virtually starless. Or all stars, depending on how you looked at it. Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace. Even close observers of that grand old team would be hard-pressed to agree on a consensus order of rank.

Not so with the Thunder. Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka. Then a big drop to Reggie Jackson, and another big drop to whoever. The Thunder has some fine role players. Many good role players. But not the kind of role players who can stand in the gap when one of the stars goes down.

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