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.