The Inbounds: The commonly sensible signing of Serge Ibaka

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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?

Nope.

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?

Irving’s 47 lead Celtics past Mavericks to maintain streak

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DALLAS (AP) — Kyrie Irving scored 10 of his season-high 47 points in overtime as the Boston Celtics rallied once again from a double-digit deficit to beat the Dallas Mavericks 110-102 on Monday night and extend their winning streak to 16 games.

The Mavericks led by as many as 13 points in the fourth quarter, but as they have several times during their winning streak, the Celtics stormed back.

The winning streak ties the fourth-longest in Celtics history.

Boston tied the game at 96 when Irving stole the ball from Dirk Nowitzki and fed Jayson Tatum for an alley-oop lay-up that hung on the rim for a full second before dropping through.

Irving scored his team’s first six points of overtime. Then after Jaylen Brown gave Boston a 104-102 lead with a jumper with 1:39 to play, Irving went to work on Yogi Ferrell, backing him down and drawing contact on a lay-up with 48.5 seconds to play. Though Irving missed the free throw to keep the score 106-102, Dallas never got closer.

Harrison Barnes scored 31 points and Wesley Matthews had 18 for Dallas, which came back from an early double-digit deficit as the Celtics went cold for much of the second and third quarters.

Irving and Barnes had chances in the final 30 seconds but both missed shots that would have given their teams the lead.

The Mavericks fell behind by as many as 15 points in the first half, outscoring the Celtics 55-35 over the second and third quarters.

Dallas took its biggest lead of the game when Yogi Ferrell fed a cutting Dwight Powell for a lay-up to make it 87-74 with 7:47 to play before the Celtics rallied.

Boston shot just 10-for-34 over the two middle quarters after building the early lead.

 

DeMarcus Cousins ejected after elbowing Russell Westbrook in head

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DeMarcus Cousins‘ history of flagrant fouls certainly didn’t help him here, but if anyone elbows a guy in the head, he’s going to get tossed.

And that’s what Cousins did here.

Midway through the third quarter in New Orleans, Cousins blocked a putback attempt by Russell Westbrook, then grabbed the rebound. Westbrook tried to reach in across Cousins’ body for the steal, and Cousins cleared out space with his elbow — right to Westbrook’s head. Cousins walked around saying “no, no, no” afterward, and he likely thinks the officials had it out for him here because he was just getting a guy off him, but we go back to the original point — elbow a guy in the head, get tossed. The league is cracking down on blows above the neck. Westbrook did not leave the game.

The Pelicans went on to come from 19 down to win the game 114-107, behind 36 points and 15 boards from Anthony Davis.

Damn, Paul George with the in-game bounce pass alley-oop to Jerami Grant

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The game has been close (as of midway through the third quarter), but that didn’t stop Oklahoma City from putting on a show in New Orleans.

Paul George had the ball on a 2-on-0 fast break and decided to throw the playground bounce-pass alley-oop, which Jerami Grant got up and finished with authority. This could be one of the dunks of the year.

We’re going to see that highlight for a while.

Jusuf Nurkic’s agent says big man wants to stay in Portland this summer

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Last season, after his trade from frustrated backup big in Denver to new starter in Portland, there was a honeymoon — the Blazers went 14-6, their defense was better, and Nurkic was a big man setting big picks for quick guards in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

This season the honeymoon is over, things have been up and down, but far from time to say the marriage should end, as he is a free agent next summer. Nurkic is the only real starting center on the roster (even if coach Terry Stotts left him on the bench in the fourth quarter in favor of Ed Davis a few games back). Nurkic is averaging 14.6 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, and the Blazers’ defense is 1.5 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. However, his effort level has been up and down, and his shot is off, with a true shooting percentage of just 49.4, and he is shooting just 56.6 percent in the restricted area.

Nurkic wants to stay in Portland, his agent told Ben Golliver in a story at Sports Illustrated (that story is worth the read for the Nurkic origin story, which is amazing).

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

The two sides talked extension before the season, but Portland understandably wanted to make sure there was more to this relationship than just a honeymoon. It gave Nurkic a chance to drive up his asking price.

Portland and Nurkic likely will find a long-term deal next summer because it just makes sense for both sides. There are not a lot of teams with max free agent money next summer (4-6, I was told by an insider), or a lot of money to spend in general, and both DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus would be centers on the market who rank ahead of Nurkic. Portland will offer more than other free agent destinations, if not as much as Nurkic dreamed of, and they will find common ground.

But there is a lot of season to play out before then. The Blazers feel like a team that should be better than its record so far, and Nurkic is part of that untapped potential. If things change, that’s good for Nurkic — and the Blazers.