The Thunder were a unique team this year. Four players started all 88 games the team played in. The fifth guy only missed six games. For a full season, Oklahoma City had the most consistent, constant lineup of anyone in basketball.
And the big question going into the offseason is how it can get changed up. Kind of odd, isn’t it?
The thing is, one should expect it to change. James Harden wasn’t drafted to come off the bench for his career, though that might be a worthy role. Serge Ibaka made a push for more minutes and maybe a starting spot. Jeff Green’s place has been a topic of often discussion. But the rub is, do you mess with what worked? Do you tinker with a starting five that was so consistent, and oh yeah, surprised everyone by winning 50 games and pushing the defending champs and potentially eventual champs to six grueling games?
Darnell Mayberry asked the question earlier this week: Should Ibaka start next year? The obvious assumption is that Ibaka would replace Nenad Krstic in the five first, meaning Ibaka would play center. I think everyone would agree – Ibaka needs more minutes. If he showed anything this past season and especially in the postseason, it’s that he’s ready to affect games in a positive way for the Thunder.
And while the are gripes to be had with Krstic, is Ibaka really the answer there for the next 82, assuming OKC doesn’t find a snap replacement? Let’s step aside and let those pesky advanced metrics do some talking.
The Thunder’s top overall adjusted five-man unit last season according to Basketball Value was Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Ibaka and Nick Collison. The second was Westbrook, Durant, Jeff Green, Ibaka and Collison. The third, Eric Maynor, James Harden, Durant, Ibaka, Collison. The theme here? Ibaka and Collison pairing at the four and five was successful last season, at least in terms of the often wonky plus/minus stat.
What about lineups in which Ibaka manned the center position? Two lineups where Ibaka played the five had OKC well in the negative. The only one that didn’t only had a handful of minutes to use, but OKC was a +13 with Westbrook, Harden, Sefolosha, Durant and Ibaka. Interesting.
For now, I don’t think Ibaka is starting material at the five. The numbers suggest he played well at one position, which happens to be the one he wouldn’t be starting in. Of course I don’t advocate to go entirely off of numbers, especially plus/minus. It’s often a poor indicator. I’m just basing this off of how Ibaka plays and where he fit better during the season. Now, it’s a whole other can of worms to make the case that Ibaka should start at power forward. Meaning of course, Jeff Green would be pushed to the bench. But I’m not going to go there right now, lest I have 4,000 words forthcoming.
Harden on the other hand, has a spot to step into that’s clear, and may have proved his worth there. His rookie numbers don’t blow anyone away: 9.9 ppg, 1.8 apg 40.3 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from 3 in 22.9 minutes a game. Flesh those out to per 36 and he’s sitting at around 16.5 ppg. I’ve already written about how his percentages are sure to go up once he starts finishing around the rim and any time you give a rookie a summer to decompress and reflect, he’s going to improve. (See: Westbrook, Russell) Thabo is a defensive ace and that’s where he warrants his minutes from. But with the improvement of Kevin Durant defensively and the progression of Westbrook as a versatile defender, Thabo’s role may be able to be downgraded a bit.
Oklahoma City struggled at times on the offensive end, not necessarily the defensive one. The Thunder lost a handful of games in the fourth quarter not because they couldn’t get stops, but because they couldn’t score. I would expect Harden’s production to go up and for Thabo’s to level off a bit. Not to say Thabo isn’t as important as ever – he is. But with Harden’s steady improvement on both the offensive and defensive end, if there’s anywhere to alter the starting five, this might be it. But that will be settled this summer and during camp in the fall. Harden will have to earn that. Scott Brooks won’t just hand it to him simply because of where he was drafted. That’s not how it works in this organization.
Ibaka on the other hand, is a player that prefers to roam and make his impact defensively by seeming like he’s everywhere. Centers don’t typically get to do that. Their primary job is to defend the other team’s post scoring threat. Lean on him, push on him and box out when a shot goes up. Ibaka doesn’t like doing that. He can be a starting five at some point, because with Ibaka, I think he’s honestly capable of just about anything. He has so much ability wrapped up in that 6’11 frame that it’s frankly a little terrifying. But as for taking over that role next year, I’m not so sure he’s ready.