Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant

Thunder may be looking for Serge Ibaka to emerge as team’s third scoring option


It’s easy to argue that the Thunder got worse this summer by losing Kevin Martin to the Timberwolves in free agency, and getting nothing in return to replace his offensive production in the lineup.

For a slide to be avoided, Kevin Durant is going to have to raise his game to an even higher level, especially during the first couple of months of the season while Russell Westbrook is recovering from a second knee surgery.

Young guys like Reggie Jackson will have to continue to develop as well, but the team is hoping to see a leap from its best defensive player to help bridge the gap on the other end of the floor.

From Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:

Entering his fifth season, the first of his contentious four-year, $49 million extension, Ibaka must now take on the role of third scoring option. More than that, it’s time he also blossoms into the Thunder’s best post defender. Oklahoma City’s championship hopes might depend on it.

Harden is long gone, and Kevin Martin walked this summer. That leaves Ibaka as one of the few remaining players the Thunder can count on to complement Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Everyone else outside of Reggie Jackson is either a defensive specialist or a big fat question mark.

“He has to continue to have an impact on the game,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of Ibaka.

The thing is, Ibaka wasn’t that far off statistically from being that third option last season.

The drop off from Durant and Westbrook to Martin was substantial, but Martin’s 14 points per game average was followed closely by Ibaka’s 13.2, and Serge played more minutes to get there.

It’s pointed out in the article that Ibaka’s per-36 numbers approach 16 points and 10 rebounds per game, which would be reasonable for him to achieve if he’s given an expanded role this season. But that’s only a marginal improvement from last year’s averages, and it won’t be enough to replace Martin’s production, hot-and-cold as it may have been.

For Oklahoma City to play deep into the postseason, they’ll need Durant and Westbrook to be greater than usual, they’ll need Ibaka to improve by averaging the numbers projected or beyond, and they’ll need some of the young guys to develop and contribute ahead of schedule.

It seems like an awful lot to ask.

51Q: Does Ty Lawson vault the Rockets into the top tier of championship contenders?

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. 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 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders –  Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.

Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?

Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.

But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.

There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.

I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.

But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.

There are reasons to question that, though.

The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.

Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.

Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.

But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?

The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.

UNLV following Kentucky’s lead with combine for NBA scouts

Goodluck Okonoboh, Patrick McCaw
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Kentucky held a two-day combine last season for NBA scouts.

Now, LSU and UNLV are following suit.

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports:

The Runnin’ Rebels will hold their event on October 23rd and 24th at the Mendenhall Center, UNLV’s practice facility, sources told The expectation is that all 30 NBA teams will be in attendance.

LSU has potential No. 1 pick Ben Simmons and another first-round prospect in Tim Quarterman.

UNLV features lottery prospect Stephen Zimmerman.

This won’t replace scouts attending games and watching practices, but the fact that all 30 teams plan to attend shows how seriously the pro league takes these. No college team wanted John Calipari to have that competitive advantage in recruiting, so the smart ones are leveling the field with their own combines. Soon, more college teams will follow.

As the calendar gets packed, NBA teams might have to pick and choose which they attend. At that point, we might get little clues about which prospects they’re scouting hardest.