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Rising Oklahoma City Thunder star Serge Ibaka entered the 2012 Summer Olympics in London talking a little bit of smack about the big, bad U.S. men's national team, calling his own Spain squad Team USA's equal. It nearly was in the final game of the Olympic tournament, pushing the U.S. for four quarters but ultimately falling seven points short and having to again settle for silver.
Ibaka played his best ball of the tournament against the U.S., scoring 12 points and grabbing nine rebounds in just 22 minutes. That "just" appears to have irked Ibaka, though — according to reports emanating from Spain, the 22-year-old big man was very displeased with the way he was used and the lack of floor time he saw during Spain's eight-game run to Silver.
According to a translation of a piece by Luis Fernando López of the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Ibaka expressed anger both publicly and privately during the Olympics in a variety of ways:
After practice, while the other players shared coffee or fruit, the Thunder big man put as much distance as possible [between him and his teammates]. The day before the final, for example, he waited alone on the bus for half an hour, looking heated. The evening before the semifinals, he wandered through a field near the stadium, gesticulating in an unfriendly manner while talking on the phone. Every evening, after workouts, he crossed between the handful of journalists, and only someone suicidal would have dared to stop him.
López goes on to say that Ibaka "felt underused and questioned his standing on the team," and that his distance was a response to frustration with the role carved out for him by national team coach Sergio Scariolo, he of the Etch-a-Sketch-style sideline board (which was reportedly produced especially for Scariolo by ERARCO Marketing Solutions in Madrid). Just how upset was Ibaka?
"If things continue like this, I will not return," he admitted to close friends before the final.
We're betting that Ibaka's not nearly as angry these days, what with that new four-year, $48 million contract extension now safely tucked under his belt. After having taken a couple of deep, money-infused breaths, we'd also hope that he realized his "standing on the team" was pretty much exactly what he should have expected it to be when he joined up with Spain after becoming a naturalized citizen in July 2011.
It's understandable for Ibaka to bristle at having played just 121 total minutes in Spain's eight games — an average of 15.2 per contest in the 40-minute FIBA game, two minutes per game fewer than he averaged during Spain's gold-medal run at EuroBasket 2011 — but put those minutes into context. They ranked third among Spanish frontcourt players behind Pau Gasol (227) and Marc Gasol (209); he played more than longtime national-team stalwart and former Spanish League MVP Felipe Reyes, as well he should have. But he didn't play more than the Gasols, which makes sense, or Spain's key guards and wings, which makes sense.
If healthy, Pau and Marc were going to start; that much was always a given. As good a midrange shooter as Ibaka's become and as much as he's improved as a defender, he would've been horribly miscast as a small forward; he can't reliably defend quick wings and he can't shoot well enough to provide spacing, and Spain had a guy who could do (at least some of) that at the three in Rudy Fernandez. Since Ibaka wasn't going to play small forward alongside the Gasols, he was going to be the first big off the Spain bench, but unlike his work stateside, he wasn't going to be a clear better long-minutes and late-game option than whichever starter he was replacing, because neither Pau nor Marc should be confused with Kendrick Perkins.
And so Ibaka's role was clear, and clearly defined, to anyone paying attention — if the Gasols were healthy, he was going to play reserve minutes behind two firmly entrenched national team members who also happen to be better scorers, passers and all-around basketball players than he is at this stage in their respective careers. That's not 20/20 hindsight; that's the application of logic to a lineup. And before he goes off and does any more unfriendly gesticulating or post-practice-buffet-avoiding, Ibaka should apply some to upcoming iterations of the Spanish side.
As López notes in his column, Spanish basketball officials expect Reyes and Pau to have retired from the national team by the 2016 Summer Games, and while Marc will still be in the thick of his playing days at age 31 when Rio rolls around, he's also put in seven straight summers of work with the national team while also playing for the Memphis Grizzlies — who's to say he wants to continue subjecting himself to the rigors of that year-round basketball schedule through the next two EuroBasket competitions and into the run-up to the next Olympiad? All Ibaka has to do is head back to Oklahoma, continue to improve this season for the Thunder and just sit tight — whether or not Scariolo is retained as Spain's head coach (a matter that López says remains undecided), one way or another, big minutes in Spain's frontcourt are going to open for Ibaka, perhaps as quickly as EuroBasket 2013 in Slovenia next September.
The much more interesting question is whether Ibaka will get to play alongside fellow young and exciting Spanish national team prospect Nikola Mirotic, whom the Bulls selected in the first round of the 2011 NBA draft. The 6-foot-10, Montenegrin-born Mirotic has starred for Spain's under-20 team and played well for Spanish pro team Real Madrid, and he became a Spanish citizen in 2010, and Spain's basketball federation looks at the 22-year-old Ibaka and the 21-year-old Mirotic as the next pair of frontcourt stars to lead Spain to future international glory. Under existing FIBA rules, though, national teams are prevented from selecting two nationalized players, meaning that unless the rules change, Spain would have to pick one or the other. Naturally, federation president José Luis Sáez is working to get FIBA to change the rule; if he's unsuccessful, the federation could have a tough choice on its hands. Unless, of course, Serge follows through on his threat to pout his way off the squad.
If he sticks around and remains mad, though, it is my fervent hope that the United States fights fire with fire in the years ahead and deploys its most dangerous and enticing weapon: DeMarcus Cousins. Big, mad and gifted is a hell of a way to go through life, y'all.
Hat-tip to SB Nation.