Serge Ibaka was the best player in the Thursday night trade that had everyone at the 2016 NBA Draft in Brooklyn buzzing. But the overwhelming reaction to the move is one of woe for Magic fans. Most believe Thunder GM Sam Presti hoodwinked Orlando’s Rob Hennigan by unloading a past-his-prime player for an ascending two-way guard, a rookie with tremendous upside and a solid rotation piece.
Vegas agrees, too.
And some rash writers are saying the Thunder are now more attractive to impending free agent, Kevin Durant. Royce Young, who covers OKC for ESPN alluded to a “stuttering relationship [Ibaka] had in the locker room,” which is about as equivocal a proclamation as you can get. Young also said that Ibaka and Durant had basically no relationship off the court, and that KD and Westbrook would often overtly criticize Ibaka on the hardwood when he messed up a rotation or failed to go to the right spot on a set.
So maybe KD liked the move as much as the basketball world does the day after. But if you’re a Magic fan, you shouldn’t throw up your arms in despair. And you should not start planning for a future without Hennigan calling the shots, either. Alex Martins — the CEO, COO and President of the Magic — was the biggest reason they dealt Tobias Harris midseason and brought in Scott Skiles over the summer only to see him leave after only one year at the helm.
Frank Vogel is now controlling things from the bench, and Victor Oladipo, a gifted young player with a lot of potential who plays hard on both sides of the ball, still might not be as good as either Mario Hezonja or Evan Fournier. That’s why he was coming off the bench at points this past season. That’s also, presumably, why Orlando felt comfortable unloading he and Ilyasova, plus the first-round pick that’s Sabonis. Except, Ersan Ilyasova was probably gonna be cut next season anyway, and there’s no telling what the young Arvydas Sabonis progeny might bring to the table in his first NBA go-around.
And Vogel has a history of developing defenders. Remember verticality and Roy Hibbert? Remember the Pacers turning into a defensive juggernaut under his reign? Well, Ibaka has more athleticism than Hibbert ever did and is a much better shot blocker, too. Vogel will only help bring the best out of Air Congo.
Neither Oladipo, the rookie Sabonis nor Ilyasova is a three-time First Team All-Defensive selection. True, Ibaka missed out on that selection this past season, and for good reason, but he’s still a strong body who can move, shoot from downtown, shoot from mid-range with accuracy, and protect the rim. He can get wonky on pick-and-roll rotations, but only when he’s not engaged. We’re guessing he’ll be more engaged in Orlando with more touches on offense, too.
Let’s not forget, Ibaka’s hasn’t even turned 27 yet, so it’s not exactly a stretch to say he can bounce back from a disappointing 2015-16 campaign. He’s right near his prime in NBA years, and a change of scenery might be the exact thing he needs to shake off the rust and regret of this past season and get back to his All-Defensive level of year’s past.
There just aren’t many players of his ilk around, and in an NBA that’s now heavily predicated on spacing, shooting and rim protection, Serge gets a checkmark in all three categories.
Plus, the Magic really could use him. Opponents shot 61.1 percent in the restricted area last season against Orlando, which was just one spot way from being in the bottom third of the league. Oklahoma City, even with Ibaka playing at a fraction of his former rim-protecting apogee, still tied for fifth lowest mark in the NBA by holding opponents to just 57.7 percent in the restricted area.
Center Nikola Vucevic is an excellent offensive weapon on the block and in some pick-and-pop situations, but he can’t protect the rim. Ibaka can. The Magic gave up almost a point more per 100 possessions when Vucevic was on the court; Oklahoma City gave up fewer points with a less-than-stellar Ibaka in the regular season and the playoffs.
Also, we wouldn’t be surprised if Vuc is dealt this summer, which might allow Orlando to go small with Ibaka at the five, Aaron Gordon at the four, Mario Hezonja at the three, Evan Fournier at shooting guard and Elfrid Payton (and his stunted jumper) at point. That’s a fun little lineup, no? If they do trade Vuc, Dewayne Dedmon can log minutes at center to spell Ibaka the pounding he’ll take if they go small in large doses throughout the regular season.
Then there’s the contract situation, which appears on the surface to tilt things in favor of the Thunder. Oladipo, who is younger and on a cheaper deal, is a restricted free agent next summer. Ibaka will be unrestricted a year from now and stands to make significantly more money. But ‘Dipo might be approaching max-contract territory because of all the TV-rights money, and with Ibaka’s free agency it almost gives the Magic more leeway if this trade doesn’t pan out. They simply let him walk, whereas the Thunder might be stuck with a difficult decision if someone offers ‘Dipo near max money at the same time Westbrook — and maybe even Durant, if he does the two-year thing with a player option for that second year — become free agents in the summer of 2017.
True, there’s a lot of wiggle room with the cap expected to jump well above the $100 million plateau next summer, but Ibaka is a known commodity and Oladipo is just a lot of athleticism and potential who put up some decent numbers on a bad team.
The Thunder may well be the best team out West now (cue Oakland and San Antonio eyeballs), but look at who had the best on/off numbers in Oklahoma City’s surprising run to within one game of their first Finals berth since 2012. Discounting Nazr Mohammed’s garbage minutes, it was Serge.
The Thunder may have gotten better and, more importantly, they may have made themselves more attractive an option for Kevin Durant to re-sign next month and for Russ to re-sign next summer. But the Magic are better, too, and there’s no dithering may in that declaration, either.