The date was May 19, 2014.
That’s when Serge Ibaka’s campaign officially began for next year’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
It was Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder was in San Antonio. Ibaka was back in Oklahoma City.
With a calf injury sidelining its most electric interior defender, the Thunder got lit up. The Spurs scored 67 points in the first half, with 40 of them coming in the paint, before they finished with 122 points and 66 paint points.
The Thunder, with a mere three blocked shots that night, had been exposed.
Game 2 was only marginally better.
Two nights later, with Ibaka still out, San Antonio posted 112 points, with 54 of them coming in the paint.
At that moment, the world gained a newfound appreciation for Serge Ibaka’s impact on the Thunder. In terms of his reputation, Ibaka had benefited from being out in the same strange way that Russell Westbrook finally did through similar misfortune in last year’s postseason.
With that out of the way, the future looks awfully bright for Ibaka. We’re talking possible All-Star appearances, potential Defensive Player of the Year awards.
But for now, Ibaka looks like he’ll simply be one of the biggest bargains in basketball.
The Thunder took a ton of criticism when it signed Ibaka to a four-year, $49 million deal in August 2012. It was a contract that came before one with James Harden was ever consummated, and many fans ultimately lumped Ibaka’s deal into reasons why Harden was traded to Houston.
Two years later, Ibaka’s $12.35 million annual salary over the next three seasons looks like the Thunder got a sweetheart deal for a player who’ll be only 25 next season and already has led the league in total blocks four straight seasons and been named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team three years running.
Ibaka made just $350,000 more than Kris Humphries and David West this season. Next season, Ibaka still might not crack the top 40 player salaries.
Best of all for the Thunder, the deal will get sweeter and sweeter as Ibaka gets better and better.
Ibaka enjoyed a career year this year, averaging 15.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and one assist, all career highs. While his 2.7 blocked shots ranked second in the league, Ibaka began the process of establishing himself as more than just a shot-blocker defensively. He showed consistency guarding his man in the post, and he was much improved defending the pick and roll.
Along the way, Ibaka proved how integral he is to a Thunder defense that has been among the six best in each of the past two seasons.
The first two games of the West Finals, and the ensuing Games 3 and 4 when Ibaka’s return helped the Thunder hold the Spurs to 97 and 92 points, respectively, removed all doubt about what exactly Ibaka means to OKC.
“To know how I am very important to my team on defense, how my teammates need me on defense, it means a lot to me,” Ibaka said. “I’m sure they are going to help me get better, too.”
Ibaka’s steady improvement, as well as his drive and determination, suggest he’s still only scratched the surface of what he can be in this league. He’s finished in the top five in Defensive Player of the Year voting in each of the past three seasons, including a second-place finish in 2011-12 and a third-place finish in 2012-13.
Ibaka is likely to face stiff competition to get over the hump. Big men such as Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol and Anthony Davis figure to be in the running for the award for years to come. Wing players such as LeBron James, Paul George, Tony Allen, Andre Iguodala and Kawhi Leonard will be in play as well.
But Ibaka has earned his place among them all.
If we didn’t believe it before, May 19, 2014 changed our minds forever.