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SPORTS: Oklahoma City Thunder

Serging Forward: Ibaka's Progress Pivotal For OKC

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OKLAHOMA CITY -

When Presti and the Thunder brass re-upped Ibaka's contract in 2012, they effectively ended any reasonable chance of keeping James Harden around. The team was coming off an historic season, having just lost in the NBA Finals to Miami, and needed to re-sign its third and fourth best players. Ibaka came first, agreeing to a four-year deal worth $48 million in August.

Then before you could blink, Harden was gone.

It might be unfair to say Ibaka disappointed last year. After all, he bumped his scoring average into double figures for the first time (13.2) and led the league in blocks for a second-consecutive year. But for many Thunder followers, ‘12-‘13 Serge came up short.

Much of the consternation surrounding last year had to do with limitations on offense. Anyone can see Ibaka has the size (6-10, 245) to battle in the paint, yet, on offense he prefers a finesse approach, settling for jumpers rather than posting up on the blocks. Without Harden, the OKC was counting on Serge to score more – which he did – but his offensive game began to trend more toward Chris Bosh's than Zach Randolph's.

Ibaka attempted 11 three-pointers in three seasons before going 24-for-66 (post-season included) last year. That's not a terribly high volume or a bad percentage (36.3) but it stands out in a negative way when OKC can't get a needed bucket in the paint. It makes it look like there's not a willingness to play in the post.

Then there's rebounding. As a shot-blocker, 'Iblocka' can't average 12 boards per game. He's in the air contesting shots and out of position by the time the rebound comes down. That said, how has he never pulled down more than 7.7 per game in his career? Similar swatters like Larry Sanders, Dwight Howard and even rookie Anthony Davis gathered more rebounds per game than Serge. Ibaka should make it a goal not to let Kevin Durant out-rebound him this year.

Forty three. That's how many assists Ibaka recorded last season. That's one every other game. Serge isn't a selfish player; he just isn't a great passer yet and his involvement in the Thunder offense is limited to setting high screens and taking jump shots.

And that leads us to the crux of this column: how much can Serge Ibaka improve this season? For the Thunder to improve, Serge has to be better in 2013-14. Unfortunately for Ibaka, he'll forever be linked with Harden leaving town. It's completely unfair to look at the monster numbers Beard put up for the Rockets and hold Serge to those standards, but that's what's happened. The ‘either or' scenario that fans play in hindsight of Harden's departure makes Ibaka look worse than he is.

Can Air Congo go for 16-9 a night along with three blocks? With third-leading scorer Kevin Martin gone and Russell Westbrook sidelined for a month at least, the Thunder would love for Ibaka to pick up some of the scoring burden. He'll need to be on the court longer too. Serge played a career high 31 minutes per contest a year ago. Look for him to be in the mid-30s this season.

Here's the Much-Too-Simple-To-Actually-Work solution: create. If Ibaka has added a dribble-by move to his offensive repertoire, he'll score without having to take as many long jumpers and it will open up avenues to dish the ball to open teammates. It will also mount pressure on the bigs defending him.

Add that to his continued-improvement on defense and no one will question whether Ibaka is worth the $12 million he earns each season from here on out.

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