Oklahoma City Thunder v Denver Nuggets - Game Three

The Inbounds: The commonly sensible signing of Serge Ibaka


I’m not known as the biggest Serge Ibaka guy. I have an analytic relationship with the Oklahoma City Thunder that too closely mirrors that of an indie rock fan in its obnoxiousness. In short, I saw the jump coming in the early months of 2010 when they started the leap to contention and was huge on them, so now I think their early work was better before they got popular. This is, of course, nonsense, they’re a much better team now but something was lost in that first year of exploration as it is with jazz music, gin, a new city’s restaurant scene and teenage sexuality.

So I tend to get a little exhausted at the superlatives thrown at Ibaka. When he took second in Defensive Player of the Year, an award I spent a great deal of time thinking about as part of my gig, I nearly blew a gasket. The nice thing about Ibaka is you don’t actually have to pump fake, because as soon as you’ve thought about it, he’s in the air. Nobody else in the league takes so many points off the board with blocks and puts them back on with goaltends. (OK< that joke’s weak because we all know JaVale McGee is the answer there.) I’ve got a million of them.

So surely I’m ready to roast OKC for, at the very least, putting the possibility of losing James Harden on the table, and paying Ibaka upwards of $48 million over four years, right?


The Thunder made the right call, and it’s one that reflects their approach as an organization. Now, there’s every reason to think that keeping Harden is nowhere near off the table. It is still very much possible that Harden remains a Thunder, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Presti quietly announced it on Monday on his way to his honeymoon. But even if this move lead them to terminate their relationship with Harden in the short and long-term, it would be the right one. Consider the following:

  • The areas in which Ibaka struggles, namely face-up defense, tactical decision-making, and over-pursuit of the weakside block, those are all elements which project to improve as he gets older. Even with a loss of athleticism as he adds more muscle and transitions to bulk defender, his aggressiveness with a smarter set of principles translates to more success. He’s a smart player now. When he adds experience and wisdom, his value raises considerably. He’ll be 26 when this contract expires, just scraping that surface and still as athletic as ever.
  • Harden, comparatively, relies on sharp shooting, crafty play, and a playmaking ability. He’ll improve. He’ll be terrific. But there’s only so much better he can get. His game isn’t predicated on athleticism (though he’s athletic). What makes Harden remarkable is his almost instinctive understanding of how to make plays which take players sometimes nearly two decades to learn. But that also means he’s not going to add that element to a natural set of skills. Harden’s already a star. He’s arrived. And he’ll improve. This isn’t to diminish Harden’s ability, but to simply acknowledge that Ibaka can grow to have more of an impact and in this league, you pay for potential.
  • Stretch fours are the leading cause of death for teams. The Celtics would be a shambled pile of bones if Kevin Garnett (and to an extent Brandon Bass) didn’t keep them afloat. Chris Bosh was lethal to Oklahoma City (I know, I know, again, see the first point on him improving). Having a player who’s not so big that he can drift beyond the paint to defend causes all sorts of issues for the opponent. Ibaka’s athleticism and frame lets him guard the beasts and cover the ones that victimize through spacing. It’s a big plus, compared to a standard-sized shooting guard with limited lateral quickness. Oh, and have I mentioned that Ibaka pays Pau Gasol well?
  • Here’s a list of the best power forwards who played at least 20 minutes per game last season at shooting from 16-23 feet: Nick Collison, Dirk Nowitzki, Brandon Bass, Kevin Garnett, David West, Serge Ibaka. Now, Collison and Ibaka had the least attempts of those players and fit a vastly different role. But the point is that no matter how irritating it may be to Spurs fans or anyone else, the shooting from mid-range isn’t a fluke. Ibaka can hit that. He’s a player who defends as he does, and can finish with the big dunk, and can hit the mid-range shot.
  • And maybe the biggest reason? The rule change the NBA is aiming for to adopt FIBA-style rules for goaltending. Under the new rules, as soon as that sucker hits rim, it’s fair game. So a lot of those goaltends are going to shift to legal blocks. Ibaka’s timing and athleticism means he can challenge with more abandon under those rules and that’s not insignificant. If those kinds of players become premium based on how the rule affects play, something we really don’t know yet, it would have a huge impact on his value.

At $12 million he’s still making less than Nene. He’s making just more than JaVale McGee. It was a reasonable market value for the player’s value without getting a steal that would leave him happy or handing him a massive contract to handcuff the Thunder.

Ibaka’s signing is less about who he’s been, but about who he could be. And even as the Thunder move very firmly into the “now’ period of their ascension, they’re still looking down the line. What could be more “Thunder” than that?

Joel Embiid hits shots, blocks Westbrook, looks good in debut

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And somewhere, Sam Hinkie weeps.

After two seasons on the sidelines with foot injuries, Joel Embiid played his first NBA game Wednesday night — and he looked good — 20 points, seven rebounds, and a couple of blocked shots. The Philadelphia crowd loved him — when he opened the game with a nice move and free-throw line jumper, followed by a block of Russell Westbrook, the arena nearly exploded. He was later serenaded with “trust the process” chants as he shot free throws.

He’s still a work in progress — he tried to do too much rather than let the game come to him. That led to 7-of-17 shooting and him chasing blocks on defense and getting out of position. He played like an over-amped rookie. Which he was. (Apparently, some Philly fans were a little over-amped, too.)

But one with a world of talent. The Sixers have something here.

Three Things We Learned Wednesday: Lakers youth steps out of Kobe’s shadow

ANAHEIM, CA - OCTOBER 04:  D'Angelo Russell #1 and Jordan Clarkson #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers react to a Sacramento Kings foul during a preseason game at Honda Center on October 4, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The NBA had its first full slate of games, and PBT is back with our morning recap of what you need to know from the night before around the NBA — three things we learned. This is what you missed while getting arrested for blocking traffic dressed as a tree.

1) Lakers youth shows out. Rockets are what we thought they were. Last season’s Kobe Bryant farewell tour was entertaining at moments — but Wednesday night the new, young, Luke Walton Lakers were unleashed and that was a much better show. And it was show Lakers fans have longed to see. For the first time D’Angelo Russell looked like he enjoyed playing in the NBA. Jordan Clarkson was clutch and led the team with 25 points. Julius Randle used his athleticism wisely on his way to 18. Brandon Ingram showed flashes. Heck, I swear I saw Nick Young doing the dirty work on defense. Sure, it helps when the opposing defense is basically a matador waving a cape as you drive past them, still these young Lakers were attacking, playing fast — and winning, 120-114. No, the Lakers are not suddenly morphing into a playoff team in the West this season, but their young stars came out of Kobe’s shadow and basked in the sunlight for a night. This team is going to be fun. And it’s the show Lakers fans have wanted to see.

This season is so simple for the Rockets: They will go as far as their defense takes them. And that defense was a dumpster fire on opening night (the Lakers scored at a 115 points per 100 possession pace). In the second half the Lakers upped their defensive pressure and when the Rockets offense stumbled — 18 points in the fourth, just two in the final 2:55, no James Harden assists for more than 18 minutes — there was nothing for Houston to fall back on. The Rockets are going to be a entertaining to watch this season, but if their defense doesn’t improve they will lose a lot of games just like this.

2) Anthony Davis put up Jordan, Wilt numbers on opening night — and it was not enough. Anthony Davis is back. A year ago he was the guy most NBA GMs said they wanted to build around, then after one “down” season (24.3 point and 10.3 rebounds a game is down?) everyone is in love with Karl-Anthony Towns. Tuesday, Davis reminded everyone he’s a beast. A franchise player. Absolutely unstoppable when he gets going. And Wednesday night he was going — 50 points (on 34 shots), 16 rebounds, seven steals, five assists, and four blocks. Only three others in NBA history put up 50 on opening night: Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan. That is some serious company.

And the Pelicans still lost to the Denver Nuggets. For all Davis’ greatness the management in New Orleans has not put enough team around him to win games, not at a “make the playoffs” level anyway. Pelicans not named Davis shot 36.2 percent overall and 17.7 percent from three. This isn’t on coach Alvin Gentry, blame falls higher up the ladder. The clock is now ticking in New Orleans — Davis is in the first season of his new five-year contract (the first after his rookie deal). If the Pelicans don’t have it together around him by the time this contract is up, he’s going to bolt.

3) Myles Turner might be your Most Improved Player. When we at PBT made our award predictions for the coming season, I did not pick Myles Turner for Most Improved Player (in part because I don’t like to pick second-year players for that award — they are supposed to improve). But as NBC’s Dan Feldman told me lat night, we both should have picked him. Wednesday night Turner looked like the guy making the biggest leap — he had 30 points,16 rebounds, and four blocks in the season opener. He’s the guy who led the Pacers to an overtime win over the Mavericks. Paul George had an efficient 25, he stepped up as you’d expect in OT, but this was Turner’s night. He can score inside and has range — does this shot chart work for you?

Turner shot chart

If Indiana is going to be a real playoff threat, they are going to need this Turner regularly — and they just might get it. This guy is ready to take the next step.

Bonus Wednesday note: If you’re betting that Russell Westbrook can average a triple-double this season, opening night was a good night for you. Westbrook had 32 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. He is going to just be a stats machine this year.

Watch as DeMar DeRozan drop 40, lead Raptors to 109-91 win over Pistons

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TORONTO (AP) — DeMar DeRozan scored 40 points and Jonas Valanciunas added a career-high 32 as the Toronto Raptors opened their season with a 109-91 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night.

DeRozan made a career-high 17 field goals on 27 shots and was a perfect 6 for 6 from the free throw line, while Valanciunas was 10 for 15 from the field to go along with 11 rebounds. Valanciunas’ previous career high was 31, also against the Pistons, on Jan. 12, 2015.

Tobias Harris had 22 points and Marcus Morris had 17 points and nine rebounds for the Pistons, who lost for the eighth time in their last 11 games against Toronto.

DeRozan broke Vince Carter‘s opening-night record of 39 points, set against the-then New Jersey Nets in 2003. Alvin Robertson is the only other Toronto player to record a 30-point opening-night game, in the franchise’s first-ever game, also against New Jersey, in 1995.

Pascal Siakam, drafted 27th overall in June, became the first Toronto rookie to start a season opener since Valanciunas in 2012, and rose to the occasion, hauling in nine rebounds to go along with four points in 21 minutes.

Despite falling into a seven-point deficit 2:09 into the game, the Raptors went in front on a jumper by DeRozan with 6:47 to go in the first quarter and led the rest of the way.

DeRozan and Valanciunas steadied the ship in the opening quarter, driving to the basket and drawing fouls. They were a combined 13 for 13 from the free throw line and scored 15 and 10 points, respectively, as the Raptors took a 33-23 lead after one quarter.

While Detroit responded against Toronto’s reserves in the second, drawing within four points early on through Morris, Valanciunas returned to the game and added another 11 points as the Raptors pulled into a 58-46 halftime lead.

DeRozan provided much of the fireworks in the third quarter, scoring 21 points as Toronto pulled away to lead 86-71 going into the final 12 minutes.


Pistons: C Andre Drummond took a hard elbow to the face from Valanciunas at the start of the game and remained down on the court. Detroit was forced to burn a full timeout, but Drummond returned to the court. . Henry Ellenson, Detroit’s first-round draft pick last June (18th overall) went scoreless in two minutes of play, while second-round selection Michael Gbinije (49th overall), had two points in two minutes.

Raptors: C Lucas Nogueira (ankle) sat out. . DeRozan started his franchise-record eighth straight season opener, breaking a tie with Carter. . Kyle Lowry‘s basket with 3:58 remaining in the first quarter broke the monopoly of Valanciunas and DeRozan, who had scored all the points up to that point. . First-round draft pick Jakob Poeltl became the first Austrian to play in the NBA. He finished with two points in 13 minutes. . Oct. 26 is the earliest date that Toronto has ever had a home opener. . The Raptors are 13-9 on opening night and have won four straight.


PBT Extra: Spurs showed Warriors have work to do defensively

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Nobody expected what happened Tuesday night in the Bay Area.

If you had said “San Antonio would beat Golden State by five” most people would have said that’s a possibility — but nobody saw a 29-point thrashing. A game where the Spurs were never threatened and where Kawhi Leonard looked like the MVP.

What does it mean? In this PBT Extra I talk about how the Spurs showed the Warriors they have some work to do on the defensive end. The Warriors clearly miss the rim protection and rebounding of Andrew Bogut, and they are going to have to make that up as a team (because Zaza Pachulia is no Bogut). The Warriors also have 81 more games to figure it out.

Cleveland, on the other hand, has it figured out.