Welcome to our 2021-22 Clips Nation season preview series, where we’re digging into something that interests us about each player for this coming season. Next up, what does Serge Ibaka have left in the tank?
My favorite teams to watch growing up were the early 2010s Oklahoma City squads. They had everything; budding stars, 3-and-D stalwarts on the wings, and vets with the ability to contribute in every which roundabout way. Obviously, the likes of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden — pre-Houston trade — were MVPs in the making who begged appointment viewing. I’m someone who dorkily likes defense much more than offense; watching Andre Roberson and Thabo Sefolosha shut down *insert absolutely any player name here* was like watching Beethoven compose his 14th Sonata. Throwing in some wily veterans like Nick Collison, Derek Fisher, Kevin Martin, et al.? That mimicked the feeling of ordering a steak and then realizing you could get both fries and mac and cheese as side dishes.
But I was never drawn to any of the aforementioned players like I was drawn to Serge Ibaka. I loved what the sideline reporters of yore would call him in their featurettes after he swatted away four shots in the first quarter: “Serge Iblocka.” The stuff of geniuses, that. It was one of the league’s better, more fitting nicknames, given his consistency in the rejection department. Between 2010 and 2016, his first and final years in OKC, he never averaged fewer than 1.9 blocks per game. The lowest he ranked in the league during that stretch was sixth; he led the league twice. Dubbing him anything else would’ve felt inappropriate.
Once he left Oklahoma City, those once-perennial All-Defensive rates dropped a tad. Perhaps it was to be expected. With new teams come new expectations, responsibilities. But Ibaka’s typical role didn’t necessarily shrink in its entirety once he arrived in Orlando, and later in Toronto. His minutes dipped slightly, from 31-33 to 27-31. But he was scoring more, leaping to reject less.
His defensive prowess was limited not because he no longer had it, but because it was less required in those markets, or just less properly utilized. Orlando, inept as ever, couldn’t figure out how best to implement Ibaka into its blundering system; Toronto extended him out to the wings offensively and tasked him with manning the paint defensively, providing a preview of what (ideally) would come at his next stop.
Arriving in Los Angeles last season having agreed to a two-year, $19 million deal in November (with a player option on the second year), the hope was that Ibaka could replace the void left by Montrezl Harrell and JaMychal Green, who the Clippers lost in free agency to the crosstown Lakers and the then-upstart Denver Nuggets, respectively. And for a while, he did. He started 39 of 41 games in which he played last season, averaging a touch over 11 points per game to go with 6.7 rebounds and, of course, 1.1 blocks. Then came the back injury (and subsequent surgery) that came to a head in the midst of the Clippers playoff run last season, thus ending Ibaka’s year. While it wasn’t supposed to linger, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
The team will be without Ibaka in tonight’s season opener against the Golden State Warriors, despite reports that Ibaka has made progress of late. His “maniacal work ethic,” per Lawrence Frank, helped get him to a place where he could be limited to start training camp and get cleared for contact last week. That he remains sidelined is cause for concern, as is the general concept of a player of Ibaka’s stature and age requiring a back procedure of any kind. More often than not, a 32-year-old center on the wrong side of his prime finds himself out of a job when his back starts acting up.
Perhaps that’s why Ibaka elected to opt-in to the second year of his contract at the end of last season: job and financial security. Of course, the big man wants to play. But who’s to say he can, at the very least on the level we’re used to? Who’s to say what, in essence, Ibaka has left in the tank, asks the writer attempting to prophesize answers to that exact question. Much of this piece has looked, quite fondly, back on Ibaka’s past. Is there any real way to predict what remains of the artist formerly known as Serge Iblocka?
Some things we will see, for sure: he’ll boast his most flamboyant scarves as he enters any given arena, those that could easily serve as the train on a wedding dress if repurposed. There’s an animated series he is developing that will tell the stories of athletes overcoming adversity in their lives; its working title is, fittingly, Overcoming, and the first episode will be based on Ibaka’s life. But his rim protection? His range? His ability to screen, roll, finish, and stop others from doing so with his defensive ability? That’s less guaranteed, and far more desirable than neckwear and a cartoon, depending on who you ask.
It’s a game of chance at this point, a roll of the dice on which Ibaka we’ll see once he’s able to suit up. Maybe there are weeks of waiting ahead, wondering when that back will snap back into form and allow Ibaka to explode from the ground like a fresher, spryer version of his old self. Maybe that’s a pipe dream; a betting person would take the odds on the latter.
But a cautiously optimistic person would hope for the former, possibly proceeding with some caution, but knowing what kind of player lies beneath the battered and broken Ibaka we’ve seen most recently. He’s expected to return at full strength; the Clippers would be fools to trot him out at anything but. When he does, you’ll probably be able to find him at the rim. Who knows if he’ll be swatting everything away. But he’ll be there. If they’re in their right mind, opposing players will proceed with caution.