|Pharaoh Perkins and Sir Chewbacca hold down the post in Oklahoma City|
Fast-breaking, quick shooting, youthful, with a boy-next-door brand of stars, the Thunder’s stay in Oklahoma City has wrought great success that has been met with equal fan appreciation.
OKC is an offensive marvel with two of the league’s top-five scorers in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but the wins don’t come without the underappreciated work on the other end by its defensive stalwarts.
While the Thunder’s calling card has been explosive, high-flying scorers, 6-10 centre Kendrick Perkins and 6-10 power forward Serge Ibaka have solidified the team on the other end of the court.
Their place on the team has been reinforced by a few tough decisions made in the history of the team currently with the shortest history in the NBA.
Since the inception of the Thunder in the 2008-09 season, they’ve made multiple moves to shore up their defense, at the cost of an explosive backcourt player, eschewing the “Big Three” scorers model for interior defenders.
Under general manager Sam Presti, the Thunder traded up-and-coming forward Jeff Green, a 24-year-old 6-9 forward averaging 15.2 points and 5.6 rebounds, to the Boston Celtics in 2010-11 in exchange for physically imposing centre Perkins.
Perkins earned a reputation as the rock of the Celtic defence alongside Kevin Garnett that led the C’s to the NBA title in 2008, and was known throughout the league as the anchor to the NBA’s toughest defence.
Though Perkins has never ageraged more than 5.1 points in Oklahoma City, it’s his rebounding, ability to play physical in the post, intimidate, and play opposing centres rough that has been his bread and butter since he entered the league straight out of his Texas high school as the 27th pick in the 2003 draft.
Serge Ibaka has had quite a different journey to the NBA, but the shot-blocking master has proven himself in OKC by quickly developing a basketball I.Q. to match his raw skill-set, and an ever-improving offensive game.
When the Thunder traded James Harden to the Rockets shortly before the beginning of the current season, they chose defence over offence and couldn’t pay both.
With Harden in the backcourt, the Thunder had an armory of scorers and ball-handlers unmatched in the NBA. But the question became who would be harder to replace – a scoring, distributing two-guard, or a defensive dynamo and league leader in blocks at power forward?
Ultimately, OKC made the same difficult choice they made with Jeff Green and opted for the strong defence of Ibaka for the next four years at roughly $12 million per season, to back up the perimeter weapons of Westbrook and Durant, and dealt Harden to Houston for a package of players.
Ibaka, one of eighteen brothers and sisters, moved from his native Congo to Spain as a teenager after the death of his mother and imprisonment of his father during the Second Congo War.
“Air Congo” was drafted by Seattle 24th overall in the 2008 draft, then spent another season in Spain’s ACB league before joining the team in Oklahoma City.
The fourth-year NBA pro helps lead the offence with his blocks and ability to get out in transition, throw down alley-oops or step out and hit the 16-footer. He’s also increased his free-throw shooting percentage from 63 per cent to 88 per cent.
A newfound focus on passing the ball has turned the Thunder from last in the league in assisted baskets a year ago to seventh this season, with Ibaka being the prime beneficiary of the new, less ball-dominating tactic.
From the time he entered the league until now, Ibaka has improved his scoring from 6.3 points per game to 14.5, rebounds from 5.4 to 7.6, and blocks from 1.3 to 2.9.
Ibaka has blocked 580 shots since entering the league, led the league in total blocks the past two seasons, averaged a ridiculous 3.7 blocks per contest in the 2011-12 season (the most since Theo Ratliff in 2003-04) and recorded the rare triple-double with blocks on February 19th 2012 against the Denver Nuggets, scoring 14 points, grabbing 15 rebounds and swatting a career-high 11 shots.
With Spain, Ibaka has won the Eurobasket 2011, and earned a Silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games, and greatness at the NBA level should follow his international success.
The Thunder post features a pair of intimidating defensive presences. One is a grizzly, earth-bound statue, a rock of ages with an NBA ring, the other a high-flying, shot-erasing, jet of energy with international credentials.