The free agents have just about all been signed up. The NBA is down to a series of Instagram photos from moving yachts and crossed fingers from worried teams hoping their players stay safe in the summer off. There’s nothing going on, save for that clock on the wall that is ticking down to the 2013-14 season.
And it’s moving SO SLOWLY.
This is why we’ve decided to pick 26 things we’re looking forward to in 2013-14. Or, at the very least, 26 things that intrigue us as we wait out an offseason that feels like it has thousands of miles left to cross before we can get to Halloween and opening week. Because there are 26 letters in the alphabet – you guessed, NBA A-through-Z.
We continue with (Serge) Ibaka, Sam Presti’s choice.
Calling Serge Ibaka “Sam Presti’s choice” is probably a little unfair to the Oklahoma City Thunder general manager. Presti would no doubt prefer to pay his roster well into the luxury tax, rather than skirting just below it and thinning the marvelous roster he put together. The Thunder failed to return to the NBA Finals last June mainly because of Russell Westbrook’s untimely knee injury, and not because of the deal that sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets. Still, the prevailing aftermath of that deal could sink the Thunder for the next few seasons. In the end OKC lost Harden, a surefire All-Star and game-changer, for one year of Kevin Martin, rookie center Stephen Adams, and potentially a lost year that could have been spent working on Jeremy Lamb’s NBA-level reps.
Not all of this is Presti or Ibaka’s fault. The blame should shift to the Oklahoma City Thunder ownership duo of Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon, two notoriously duplicitous owners who lied to fans in Seattle, and chucked away a chance at retaining Harden in the face of the luxury tax in spite of five consecutive years of sellouts in Oklahoma City. McClendon in particular is having a rough go of things of late, having been forced out as CEO of Chesapeake Energy after it was revealed that he had been using company money for mansion refurbishment, alongside improper use of the company’s private jets. This, and the Harden deal, came after ESPN Magazine talked up the Thunder’s “family” approach, ranking them the top franchise in all of professional sports.
The owners decided not to pay to keep the family together, in spite of how much the fans contributed to the family till (Thunder fans might be upset to hear that McClendon, in particular, had to reimburse Chesapeake with his own personal funds, funds that could have been used to retain Harden, or pay off the luxury tax), which has to be frustrating. The Thunder did receive a large trade exception in the deal that sent Kevin Martin to the Minnesota Timberwolves, but there’s not a chance in hell they’ll use it if it means going over the tax mark as a result. And because the team refuses to pay Kendrick Perkins to not play for them, instead of waiving him while utilizing the amnesty provision, the Thunder are less than a million dollars under the tax limit.
That’s plenty of pressure for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to work through, but they’re used to it. Ibaka? He has to be the guy that puts this team over the top, but even at $12.3 million a year, is he that sort of player?
He’ll have to be. The Thunder owned the best offense in the NBA last year, but that was with Martin coming off the bench to average 14 points in nearly 28 minutes per game. Lamb has his admirers, but there’s no way he’ll be able to approximate that sort of point-every-other-minute production at Martin’s rate of efficiency. And though Durant and Westbrook have the ability to up their already significant usage rates, those two can only take so many shots.
Ibaka has to continue to develop as a scorer while not losing the sort of defensive edge that got him that eight figure contract in the first place. His per-minute scoring shot up in Harden’s absence last year, but his rebounding and shot-blocking totals decreased. It’s true that his defense appeared to approve markedly once he decided not to follow the ball as much, but the big man needs to find a consistent middle ground between those extremes. Because the Thunder are going to need him to both create (with his stops, and rebounding) and finish (with an ever-improving jumper and burgeoning at best post moves) possessions.
The man doesn’t even turn 24 until September, and it’s possible that the Thunder’s much-admired rise from the bottom has left us a little impatient with a five-season run that feels like it has gone on for twice as long – this is still a very young crew that led its conference with 60 wins last year.
This is the roster, though, as the payroll dictates. And Serge Ibaka looks like the guy with the most room between his current level, and that potential ceiling. It’s not his team, but his improved production is crucial to his teammates’ chances.