Is what OKC did just a shameful deception?
I've been seeing a lot of people react to the news with anger, saying that this is just a shameful act. Journalists are angry at Scott Brooks since he said numerous times that Ibaka was out and fans feel like this was some weak mind game on the Thunder's part. I don't think either interpretation is correct, as I will explain in a second, but I also think it's important to remember that overstating the severity of an injury is common practice in the league.
A Big Three Tribute for Tim, Tony & Manu
With the Spurs victory over the Thunder on Wednesday night in the Western Conference Finals Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili became the all-time winningest trio in NBA playoff history.
The Spurs have done it multiple times. Parker was supposed to miss four weeks with an ankle sprain in March of last season and returned to action exactly three weeks after his last game. There are other examples, most of which include a variation of a player coming back on the most optimistic of timeline scenarios laid out when the injury first occurred. I don't remember anything as drastic as Ibaka flip-flop done by San Antonio but the general behavior is common. That's probably why everyone on the Spurs' organization said they expected Ibaka to play. Because they know that the announcements tend to err on the pessimistic side.
I think trying to take pressure off a guy to come back from injury earlier than anticipated is actually a good thing. The opposite is what the Bulls did with Derrick Rose, which was a mess. What I question is Presti's decision to make this announcement know. It's possible he simply wanted to be upfront about the whole thing. But it could also mean that a) he wants Ibaka to play through a serious injury because the season is slipping through their hands or b) is now trying to play mind tricks with the Spurs. Presti is a respected guy among the league and was part of the Spurs family not long ago, so I absolutely give him the benefit of the doubt. But the timing is curious.
Why the huge discrepancy?
He is surely injured. We can't doubt that. No one would be dumb enough to hold Ibaka off when he was able to play. And Ibaka doesn't strike me as the type of player that would be willing to sit out just so that Presti and Brooks could attempt to pull some ridiculous stunt. The reality is Ibaka was not able to suit up because of injury, which means even if he plays in game 3, he won't be fully healthy.
So, why did we get "he's out for the year" statements only to hear the news today that he could play? There are three possible explanations, as far I see.
First, he could have been misdiagnosed. Here's what Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman said:
I really hope OKC was trying to get a competitive advantage. If not, this is yet another head-scratcher to put it kindly for the team's docs— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) Mayo 23, 2014
I don't know who's to blame: docs, management, PR. But the history/handling of health issues has been bizarre & extensive in only six years— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) Mayo 23, 2014
I won't even pretend to know the history of OKC's medical staff but if someone who covers the team regularly says that, it raises some red flags. It's possible the doctors thought the injury was worse than it was. Or that they made the right diagnosis initially and now, after feeling some pressure, they are changing their tune. Let me put on my tinfoil hat for a second and note that Presti did spend a lot of time praising the doctors in his statement. Is he covering for their initial mistake? Is he trying to put it all on them if something backfires? I don't know. In all likelihood nothing nefarious is going on. But this situation is weird enough that the conspiracy theory is a bit compelling.
The second option is that, as mentioned, Presti and Brooks exaggerated the timeline for psychological reasons. As Pop put it, he knows Sammy, so he wasn't going to fall for a silly mind game. And I'm sure Presti knows that because he knows Pop. So maybe the deception wasn't for the Spurs' benefit but to keep the Thunder players focused. Here's how Steven Adams reacted to the news:
Media broke the Serge Ibaka news to a confused Steven Adams: "When was this?...You guys probably know more than me, I'm just a rookie."— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) Mayo 23, 2014
It's possible Adams was putting on an act. But more than likely, Presti and Brooks decided to keep the rest of the team in the dark to prevent them from looking forward to Ibaka's return. Had Serge been day-to-day from game 1, his teammates could have been holding out hope he could be their savior when it wasn't really clear if he could come back. Now they are saying he could return because there's not a lot to lose, mentally, after the beat down.
And the third option is that Ibaka did make a miraculous comeback from a potentially season-ending injury in about a week. No one held out information. They all thought Ibaka was out for the season, then he recovered. It doesn't seem all that likely, but it could happen, I guess. Maybe Ibaka actually plays in this series.
If he plays, what version of Ibaka will OKC get?
Make no mistake, a healthy Ibaka changes this series. The Spurs are destroying the Thunder inside and Ibaka would change that. The rotations would go back to normal and the terrible deep bench guys wouldn't see a minute. On offense, that pick-and-pop jumper could bail out a ton of bad possessions. And you can slot Serge for a three or two from the corner when the Spurs bigs play off of him. He is extremely important to what OKC does on both sides of the ball, and there's no one else on the roster who can replicate his impact.
But there's virtually no chance he is 100% healthy, if he truly was injured -- and there's no reason to doubt that part of the story. David Lee was ruled out for the season in last year's playoffs. Then in game three of the conference semis against the Spurs he made a cameo. He was activated, logged three minutes and fired up the crowd. But he really was in no condition to play basketball. That's the last we saw him that year and the stunt failed to propel the Warriors past the Spurs. If I had to bet, I think the situation with Ibaka is closer to the situation with Lee than to a miraculous full recovery.
If Ibaka indeed plays - which is not a given, by the way - he will in all likelihood be on a minutes limit or just suiting up to inspire his teammates. I really can't fathom a situation in which Ibaka makes a significant impact on this series unless he truly is Wolverine and has healed completely.
All the conjecture will stop in two days, when we'll get a chance to see if Ibaka is on the court and how he looks. For now, I'll just say I'm glad the Spurs have handled the situation the way they did. I'm confident they'll be ready for anything on Sunday. If they continue to play the way they have so far, this whole Ibaka saga will be behind them soon enough.