I’ll be honest. I really, really wanted to avoid having this discussion.
Not because I’m afraid of the discussion it’ll start or because I have some weird love affair with Jeff Green. (Though I really do love the guy.) It’s just something you’d rather not have to talk about. In some ways, it’s good because that means that Serge Ibaka is playing fantastic basketball and could possibly be worthy of starting.
But the other side is, that means that Jeff Green hasn’t played well enough to keep that starting spot. That means Green goes to the bench and the Thunder rotation really gets a complete makeover. Which is something we’re not used to, seeing how the same starting five played in 76 of the 82 games last season.
But the question is just unavoidable now. Oklahoma City is 3-0 with Ibaka starting and after his career-high 22 points to go with 11 rebounds and four blocks against the Jazz Monday night, Ibaka has forced his way into the discussion. I mean, with that jumpshot, those athletic abilities and that size, Ibaka is nearly a perfect, prototypical starting power forward. Which is what we all want, right? Plus, he’s not even begun to scratch what he can be.
So who should start the remaining 72 games? Jeff Green or Serge Ibaka?
But let’s think rationally about this. Shaking up the starting five 10 games in because Green tweaked an ankle seems a bit, I don’t know, over-reactionary. Green has been mediocre this season and actually, has been pretty good if you just look at traditional stats (18.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg). But we all saw him overmatched by LaMarcus Aldridge and we’ve seen him struggle from 3 and we’ve seen him have issues in the post.
Look at Ibaka’s though. Serge is averaging 12.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg and 2.5 bpg in eight fewer minutes a night than Gree. Uncle Jeff has a PER of 15.4 right now while Ibaka’s is soaring at 21.3. Ibaka is currently sixth in the league in field goal percentage (58.8) and 85 percent from the line. When you compare the two, Ibaka has been better than Green this season, no doubt.
At the same time though, how can we forget the huge plays Green’s made? The save against Portland. The big driving layup against the Pistons? The big first half against the Bulls opening night that carried the Thunder. Green’s done his part to help this group win. But now it’s a question of where can he do that same part most effectively? As the starting power forward or off the bench?
I’m about halfway through writing this and honestly, I haven’t made up my mind. I do think the sample size might be a bit small to completely make this call. But I definitely have one foot firmly on the “Start Serge” wagon. I’m pretty outstanding at straddling a fence if you haven’t figured out by now.
The problem is once you do it, you can’t really go back. It’s a big call to make. And if you make that call after four starts for Ibaka, it almost seems knee-jerky. Brooks has shown that he’s completely content to trot out a consistent starting five and then work in a rotation off that. So if he makes the call to start Ibaka and use Green as a sixth man, it has to be for the long haul. There can’t be flip-flopping back and forth. At least I don’t think so.
It’s interesting because the better Ibaka plays, the less and less money Sam Presti probably feels like he has to offer Green. Obviously Uncle Jeff has value and can be a solid contributing player on this team, but if Green wants to be a starter and be paid starter money, Ibaka could be cutting into his pay. At least if he’s staying with the Thunder. So in other words, Ibaka may be making Presti’s decisions a bit easier.
Then again, on the other hand, the better Ibaka plays the more money he’s going to require. One of those rock and a hard place things here.
And don’t give me the nonsense of starting Ibaka in place of Nenad Krstic. Ibaka is a natural 4 in the same way Jimmy McNulty was natural poh-leese. Plus, a frontcourt of Green and Ibaka hasn’t been successful in the past and that just seems like a solution to try and make everyone happy while probably hurting the team. So let’s toss that option.
But think about the rotation if Ibaka is a starter. Green could still absolutely see plenty of time at power forward, but could also spell Kevin Durant at small forward. There’s no reason Uncle Jeff couldn’t still play 30-35 minutes a game and depending on matchups, still see those occasional 42-minute nights. Plus, the Thunder bench would have two really stout weapons off it in Green and James Harden. Jeff Green could be a really killer sixth man.
Really, the scenario that has Ibaka starting makes all kinds of sense. But two things hold me back. 1) Are we completely sure Ibaka is ready for this. I know we’re fired up about his game Monday and really about how well he’s played this season, but again, the sample size is rather small. We don’t want to be making a change back the other way come New Year’s. And 2) Do we feel entirely comfortable trifling with a lineup that was consistent through last season and saw the team win 50 games? I think we already know Scott Brooks’ opinion on that.
People ask me a lot to pick the Thunder’s three most untouchable players and that answer is easy every time for me. Durant, Westbrook and… Ibaka. There’s no doubt. Ibaka is like a cross between The Birdman, Tyrus Thomas and Amar’e Stoudemire. There’s so much raw skill there that’s being develop right before our face. It’s not just about how he impacts a game with his blocked shots. But watch how guards have to float their runners just a little higher, how guys hesitate in the lane, how people score less at the rim with Ibaka. He’s a defensive force and he doesn’t even completely understand how to play defense. Ibaka is the type of talent that literally improves every second he’s on the floor.
The question you’ve got to ask is, “Will starting Ibaka make this team better? Will the Thunder win more games as a result?” If you think the answer to that is yes, it’s a no-brainer. If you’re not totally sure, I think you hold off and take a longer look at it. And that’s kind of where I sit. I’m not sure.
In the end, it’s all about wins and losses and what players make those things happen. But at this point, it feels too early to decide that. But that’s probably just me. Because if not now, when? Do you wait until Green is really stinking it up and then you crush him by removing him from the first five? Do you wait for a five-game losing streak and try and shake things up? Do you wait another month to just see what happens? Or do you do it now, taking Green’s job away while he’s hurt, but also while morale is high? Tough questions to answer.
So for me, I’m going to ride the fence just a little bit longer and hope someone else figures out the right answer.