Much of the hubbub surrounding the Thunder’s trade of Serge Ibaka to the Magic has been focused on Oklahoma City’s attempts to retain Kevin Durant or the Magic’s seeming abandonment of their patient rebuild with youth, but slightly lost in the shuffle has been the notion that we may not have seen the best of Ibaka offensively. The Congolese forward’s relationship with the team reportedly deteriorated last year, and according to his agent (via Yahoo’s The Vertical), it may have been precipitated by his stagnant role in the Thunder’s system.
“There was an expectation of a larger role,” Ibaka’s agent, Andy Miller, told The Vertical. “It was overpromised and under-delivered. Everyone should be held to the same level of accountability across the board.”
With scorers and playmakers as dynamic as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Thunder coach Billy Donovan thought that Ibaka’s shooting range could best be leveraged by dragging a big man out of the paint, and we’re inclined to agree with him. The Thunder reportedly traded him because they were convinced those frustrations would lead him to bolt in free agency next summer, and now they found him a team that desperately needs his offense.
Say what you will about Aaron Gordon being marginalized by that deal (we say wait and see on that front), but without gravitational forces like KD and Russ, the Magic will work to get the ball in Ibaka’s hands both on the perimeter and at the basket. Ibaka hasn’t shown he can do much off the dribble, but he’s certainly capable of more than waiting in the corner. For one, he has one of the better midrange shots among NBA big men, and all that shot-blocking athleticism translates to dunks on the offensive end. Plus, point guard Elfrid Payton’s jumper is broken, which makes a big man with range all the more necessary.
If increased engagement on the offensive end leads to better focus on the defensive end, like it does for some players, Serge could be in for a career year. And then the Magic, with his Bird rights when he’s a free agent next summer, would be in a position to lock him up long-term to make him a franchise cornerstone. Of course, first he has to make the most of this opportunity.