As I casually walked down the hall with toilet bowl cleaner Monday with the holiday weekend winding down, a voice came from the living room with a message that immediately gave me an excuse to quit on my chores.
“Serge Ibaka got hurt.”
What could be worse for the Thunder during summer league play than a long-term injury to No. 9? Some kid trying to make a roster who careens into Kevin Durant on the bench? (Don’t worry, I just knocked on some wood, and you should too. But seriously, maybe put him in a Popemobile on the sidelines? I love that he wants to be there, but PROTECT THAT MAN!)
Thankfully there’s no indication the injury is anything serious, and as of Monday night Ibaka was listed as day-to-day. Fingers crossed further examination won’t reveal anything worse than a boo boo.
But Ibaka’s injury raises a question: Does a guy like Air Congo belong on a summer league roster? Check out the rest of the teams in Orlando. Does anyone else have a guy who even got a playoff cameo, much less the significant minutes played by Ibaka, James Harden and Eric Maynor?
It’s easy to point out that Russell Westbrook tore up the summer league after his rookie year and had a second season that put him on the map. But how do we know those two things are related? The summer league is filled with draft picks, fringe roster players and European projects. The last time Ibaka wore a Thunder uniform before Monday he was banging with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom (and forgot one last box out … WHYWHYWHY!?), and in Orlando he went down against a “Boston Celtics” team featuring three centers whose names you can’t pronounce (Semih Erden, Artsiom Parakhouski and THE Vyacheslav Kravstov) and a stiff from Notre Dame.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing to stand out in the NBA in terms of how you develop young talent. The struggles of NBA GMs to stay out of their own way have been well-documented. And the Thunder had six homegrown players in its playoffs rotation, which you’ll be hard pressed to find on other 50 win teams. So it’s possible that heavy summer league use of already established young players is a key to Oklahoma City’s rise.
Still, it’s hard for me to believe that five games in Orlando against a bunch of guys who will never sniff a regular season NBA minute (I’m looking at you, Tadija Dragicevic) will provide benefits to core rotation players that outweigh the risk of a serious or semi-serious injury. I get that the summer league is like spring football, where coaches can focus on making the player better as opposed to implementing playbooks and strategies during training camp and the preseason. But can’t a portion of that be accomplished in a more controlled environment at a practice facility?
I know Ibaka in particular could use some fine-tuning. He’ll never be able to roll out of bed with four go-to post moves, but with a little work he could be the difference between qualifying for the playoffs and home court in the first round. But when you’re talking about a difference maker of that caliber, you’ve got to minimize the risk of exposing him to injuries in the offseason. Use the summer league to sort out the end of the roster and to see where you’re at with guys like Byron Mullens.