Does Oklahoma City have enough star power to fend off the Clippers, Spurs and Grizzlies on their way to unseating the defending champion Heat? The question was raised when the Thunder traded James Harden to Houston in October. The answer may yet be provided by power forward Serge Ibaka, who has been working tirelessly at both ends of the floor on their behalf.
"He's a star for us,'' Kevin Durant said. "He's a star for us and that's how we look at it.''
The 6-foot-10 Ibaka is among the favorites for the Most Improved award while averaging career bests of 14 points and 56.4 percent shooting, which ranks him fourth in the league overall and No. 1 among non-centers. He also stands No. 2 with 2.86 blocks per game -- a rare combination of skills. He joins David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Tim Duncan and Bill Walton as the type of player who can block shots at one end and make them consistently at the other.
"How many shot-blockers are there in the history of the game that can hit 17- to 18-foot jump shots?'' OKC coach Scott Brooks said. "He is a knockdown 17-foot shooter, and eventually he's going to be able to make the three consistently.''
Ibaka has been at the center of the Thunder's last two big trades. They dealt Jeff Green two years ago in part to elevate Ibaka (and Harden) to more prominent roles. When Harden was moved for financial reasons, it was done in part because the Thunder have faith in Ibaka, whose game has improved steadily.
"He's driven like not a lot of players I've been around,'' Brooks said. "An optional day is never an option for him.''
Ibaka had picked up basketball as a teenager in Congo before moving to Europe to play professionally. When the Thunder picked him at No. 24 in the 2008 draft, two traits were particularly intriguing to them: (1) his determination, which has been exhibited by the extra work he puts in routinely at night after practices (to the point that the team sometimes has to send Ibaka home on orders that he needs rest more than extra work); and (2) a smooth shooting stroke at the elbow that has grown increasingly reliable.
"Maybe for you or for all the people it is a surprise,'' Ibaka said of his dependable jump shooting, "but not for me or for my teammates or my coaches. Because they know I put in a lot of work and that is why I'm getting better.''
Though he's only 23, Ibaka was in a hurry to prove himself while helping his team recover from Harden's departure.
"I was thinking that it's time,'' he said. "Four years, people have been talking about us, that we're a young team. That era is over for now, man. It's time to stand up and to play our basketball and to do what we're going to do. It's no more excuse to be young, it's no more excuse. It's win or go home.''
Do the Thunder have enough playmakers to beat the Heat? While Kevin Martin's 15.1 points have helped replace the 16.8 points they received from Harden last season, the Thunder have no one to provide the versatility that made Harden the Sixth Man of the Year. Instead, their young team has progressed along a different route. Durant is showing more MVP-level leadership than ever, while Russell Westbrook continues to mature while never missing a game.
The dominance of Durant and Westbrook raises the healthy question of whether there is room for a third star in Oklahoma City. It became easier to put things into perspective when Harden emerged as an explosive star in Houston -- a role that he never could have established while trying to complement Durant and Westbrook.
While Ibaka is worthy of All-Star consideration from the Western Conference coaches, who should appreciate his across-the-board impact on the best team in the conference, he'll be unlikely to approach 20 points per game as long as he's playing in the seams between his prolific teammates. He is an emerging star in the mode of Rasheed Wallace, Buck Williams or Horace Grant -- an unselfish big man whose team couldn't contend without him. At one end of the floor Ibaka shoots a high percentage, and at the other end he holds opponents to low percentages.
"I'm working to get better at everything, not just my offensive game,'' Ibaka said. "I'm getting better on defense, not only in the blocked shot. We're switching a lot -- I'm switching a lot on the small guys because I have confidence from my coach. He gives me that confidence to do a lot, so now I'm doing everything.''
While the luxury tax may force Miami and other rivals to disband their expensive teams over the next year or two, the Thunder core of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are no older than 24 and all signed through 2015-16. In time, their model may stand up as the example that the rest of the league is trying to emulate.
"As a player I would like to be someone someday, and I would like to try it,'' Ibaka said of eventually earning All-Star status. "But I wont lie to you: It's not really my obsession. My big obsession is to win the championship with my team.
"I keep working like I do now, I think one day I will have a possibility to be [an] All-Star. But the big obsession is to win. We saw a lot of good players in the history of the NBA do not end up winning. They were All-Star 14 or 15 times, yeah? But they do not win.''
Ibaka, however, appears to be on the right track.
Smith will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. If the Hawks were to put him on the market, he would be the top asset available at the trade deadline next month. As much as the Hawks have insisted that they would prefer to continue building around their versatile 27-year-old power forward, the larger factor has been Smith's apparent frustration with not becoming an All-Star. Would he be more likely to fulfill his potential with another team? Or has he already peaked? Trading for Smith would amount to a high-risk, high-reward opportunity for potential suitors, and yet many teams will be lining up to show interest in Smith if the Hawks believe they have no other choice but to move him.
The Lakers have a lot of moving parts, and few of them have been working in concert. But the easiest way to gauge them is through their big men, as Nash suggested. If Howard is regaining his vitality after last season's back surgery, they may be able to move up in the second half of the season. The other gauge will be Pau Gasol's role when he returns from a concussion. If he is engaged as a frontcourt playmaker and Howard is exploding around the rim, the Lakers may yet be more than a carnival act.
The best injury news came from Washington, where John Wall looked like his old fast self while driving the Wizards to victories in his first two games back, despite playing only half of each game. His goal for the second half of the year will be to re-establish himself as one of the league's top young point guards and thereby create hope for his young team looking ahead to next season.
Get To Know: Rudy Gay
The 6-foot-8 small forward from UConn leads the Grizzlies with 17.7 points per game. Gay, 26, has been the subject of trade rumors in recent weeks as Memphis weighs the impact of the luxury tax against its potential to reach the NBA Finals.
? Gay credits UConn coach Jim Calhoun for helping him reach the NBA. Gay grew up in Baltimore but chose UConn over Maryland -- a controversial decision that withstood the scrutiny of the NCAA.
"When I was talking to him, he seemed so nice and gentle,'' Gay said of Calhoun as a recruiter. "And then I got there and it was like, Where did that guy go? First day of practice it was like he was a totally different person.
"I still see him as one of my mentors and a great motivator. I think about the program there, the way he built it from the ground up, and I guess he had to be that way. Man, he breaks you down that first day of practice. You don't even wear your regular practice uniform. You wear, like, a T-shirt and some cotton shorts -- not even mesh -- and they give you a jock strap, and it's like you're starting from scratch. At that point I just thought it was stupid, but I realize now how important it was.
"I mean, he told me [as a recruit], 'You're going to start automatically.' I was at the end of the bench my first day. He made me build up to it. He made me play to earn that.''
During his two years at UConn, NBA scouts complained that Gay had lapses of concentration.
"I think I was misunderstood, very misunderstood," he said. "I was giving my all. They were saying that I didn't love the game and stuff like that -- that didn't make sense. You have to love the game to play for coach Calhoun because if you don't, he'll weed you out. He'll see right through it. You have to fight from Day 1. Nothing was given to me -- of course he told me it would be, that's why I went there. But as soon as I got there ...
"Some great players were on the team, and sometimes you got to let a great player be a great player. Because those are the teams that win. With UConn it's all about winning, and the people that win the most are remembered the most. And I wanted to be one of those guys that was remembered.''
? In one of his final moves, Grizzlies president Jerry West traded Shane Battier to Houston for the right to choose Gay with the No. 8 pick in the 2006 draft.
"That's another guy that I respect, that helped me to the utmost," Gay said of West. "He worked with me so much my rookie year and helped me become a better player and a better person.
"He's tough, too. I went straight from Calhoun to Jerry West, and Jerry West is a tough guy. He was tough on me. Like if I had a bad game, he'd meet me on the court. He's the general manager and he'd meet me on the court and just let me have it, right after the game, before I even get to the locker room. Three days into the season, I remember not playing well, and I remember him just pouring it on right there. It would go on for about 10 minutes, but then he would always end it with, 'I love you. I invested a lot into you.' So at the end it was all coming from a good place.
"It did help me. Growing up I was kind of spoiled -- everything came easy to me. He made me go back to the drawing board.''
Though Gay has yet to be an All-Star, he earned a spot on the USA team that Kevin Durant led to the 2010 FIBA World Championship.
"It was a chance for me to be around some good guys, hardworking guys, and learn their way of doing things and get better," Gay said. "Nobody took a day off. You were able to see what other guys are working on, and you joined in with their workouts.''
? In February 2011, Gay suffered a subluxation when his left shoulder momentarily popped out of place.
"You had to work so hard," he said, "and then to get a setback like that? I had to work hard, really hard, and it made me think about life, not just basketball. That it can be over just like that. That was a serious injury; people hadn't come back from that injury. I was lucky enough to come back. I had people who helped me get back.
"Oh, my God, I had never been hurt before and never had surgery. It was painful for nine months. I couldn't even sleep because the whole rehab is about stretching and trying to get it back. I never had the full range of motion, and I still don't have 100 percent. They told me, No, you probably won't get it back. I had to adapt my game and become a different type of player. Most of my game early on was because of my athleticism.''
Gay was sidelined during the 2011 playoffs as the No. 8 Grizzlies upset the Spurs (themselves diminished by an injury to Manu Ginobili) in the opening round and then took the Thunder to a seventh game. During the last two years, he has been able to reintegrate with a team that had succeeded in his absence.
"Just work hard, just let them all see how hard you're working," Gay said. "I had to get my teammates back on my side and believing in me. Everybody was always pushing for me, so it was about working hard.''
He won't name his goals.
"To be honest with you," he said, "you can say stuff, but it's nothing until you do it. I'm still working here and doing it. There are so many great players here [on the Grizzlies] that I don't need to go out there to be the scorer every night -- I can be doing other things. We've got a team that can do something and I'm trying to help them get over the hump.''
Quote Of The Week
"We're letting everybody know that the 'Bank of Cuban' is open.''
Amid complaints from Dirk Nowitzki about the short-term future in Dallas, Cuban declared the Mavericks' interest in making trades before the Feb. 21 deadline. The truth is that Cuban would be seeking deals over the next month whether or not Nowitzki had spoken out. The Grizzlies' floating of Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph -- despite the team's championship hopes -- is the first of many examples to come. More teams will be seeking deals to avoid the harsher luxury taxes that will go into effect next season. If rivals executives have predicted the impact accurately, Cuban's cap space will be even more valuable than it would have been under the previous collective bargaining agreement.
That's why Cuban added this: "If it's the right deal, we don't mind taking back money. But we're not going to do a trade just to do a trade. It's got to be worthwhile.''
To put it another way, he should be -- and surely will be -- discriminating in how he spends his cap space. As valuable as it is now, it could be even more valuable a year from now. Which means he could spend it on assets that he could use in a trade next season, or he could save it, or spend only a portion of it. All kinds of options are available, and everyone knows he won't be afraid to expend them as he sees fit, regardless of outside opinion.
Game Of The Week
"The Celtics' young guys have given them an infusion of energy, and it has helped out ever since Avery Bradley's been back (the Celtics have gone 6-2 with him). He helps their rotation because defensively he picks up the opponents' best scoring guard so Rajon Rondo can gamble a little bit more and doesn't have to expend as much energy on the ball.
"The benefit with him [Bradley] is that they now have somebody else out there that doesn't have to have the ball, that will guard the other team's best guard and will make life a little bit easier on Rondo so he can do what he does best. I don't think anybody ever said Rondo is a lockdown defender to begin with, but he had to guard people before Bradley turned up.
"Bradley is a guy they can depend on to do some of the other things, and he helps with their chemistry. The more I watch Ray Allen, the more I see that he hasn't been so much of a chemistry guy in Miami or during his time in Boston. He's definitely a great player, but you don't see him being the guy high-fiving off the bench. I didn't think about that until somebody pointed it out to me when Mario Chalmers hit all those threes [10 of them last Saturday at Sacramento] and Ray didn't get up off the bench [while LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were jumping up to celebrate]. It doesn't take away from what Ray does -- he's just Ray Allen, and it means Bradley is giving them something different.
"I like the way their rotation is now. They're starting to look more like Boston defensively. They look like a deep team when you see Jared Sullinger giving them points and -- more important -- rebounds off the bench. Now Jason Terry doesn't have to play a ton of minutes and he can shoot when he comes off the bench. With Courtney Lee, too, they've got a pretty good backcourt, even though they still don't have a real point guard coming off the bench, which has been the story for six years now.
"In the playoffs, the question is going to be how much they're getting out of Jeff Green. That's going to be the key position -- how much is Paul Pierce going to be guarding LeBron? And how much will Green be able to contribute? Miami is the team they have to worry about, but even if it's the Knicks, Pierce and Green will end up guarding Carmelo Anthony because they're not going to want to put Kevin Garnett on him for a long time.
"The Bulls have stayed in contention by committee. They're defending to win games, and if they wind up with a home-court seed, then Tom Thibodeau should be Coach of the Year based on the way they've held teams defensively and stayed in games. They've had some ugly games, but they've also had the team belief that if they do what they're supposed to do, then they'll give themselves a chance to win.
"Carlos Boozer has been playing consistently great. Joakim Noah has been up and down -- he's had some dominant games, but I've seen him have some stinkers, too. Kirk Hinrich has been a big part of their success when he's been playing, and a big part in their lack of success when he hasn't been playing.
"Taj Gibson has been playing well, but they miss a consistent outside shooter like they had with Kyle Korver, and they definitely miss Omer Asik. By the time the playoffs come, I think they're going to be so worn down that they'll have a hard time winning a playoff series. I think it's going to be difficult for them even if Derrick Rose comes back and is playing well. Their other guys are playing so many minutes, Noah and Luol Deng especially. Deng will have to be tired, because they rely on what he does so much offensively and defensively, and he keeps playing 40 minutes a game while he's guarding LeBron or Paul George or Pierce or Carmelo.
"The key for Boston's beating Chicago is if Boston's bench can be productive and keep fresh people on the floor. Sullinger will have to be big in this game because they need him to be an insider. They're not going to want to put Green on Boozer. If they have Sullinger playing the 4, he has to be ready to deal with Boozer. Chicago will be relying on its inside guys, Noah and Boozer, but the Celtics' depth gives them the advantage.''
All-J.J. Hickson Team
Rebounding has been a problem for Miami, Boston and New York, as all three contenders rank in the bottom 10 in rebound differential. The players on this list have played at least 30 games this season while averaging more than 24 minutes per game, and based on those parameters, the NBA co-leader in rebounds per 48 minutes (17.9) is Hickson, Portland's undersized 6-foot-9 center. These league leaders by position in rebounds per 48 minutes show that help on the boards can come from the least likely sources.
C Nikola Vucevic, Magic, 16.8 F Tim Duncan, Spurs, 15.3 F Carlos Boozer, Bulls, 15.2 F Tristan Thompson, Cavaliers, 14.3 G Manu Ginobili, Spurs, 7.4 G J.R. Smith, Knicks, 7.2 G Martell Webster, Wizards, 7.2