Last night the Thunder traded Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Illyasova, and the 11th Pick in the draft, Domantas Sabonis. While I was initially apprehensive of the Thunder shopping Ibaka, this trade helps provide the Thunder with more salary flexibility as Steven Adams looks prime for his raise, and it was clear that Ibaka was growing unhappy with his role. With the ability to walk next year, I think OKC ended up making the right decision and it surprises me that Orlando gave up so much for a guy they might be renting for a year.
I like Ibaka a lot. He has shown through his career that he is a hard worker and has made improvements on his game year-over-year. The raw numbers don’t show it but his transition to the perimeter on offense while maintaining defensive flexibility might have been the most important part of the Thunder’s roster in that epic seven-game showdown with the Warriors this year. That type of production will be hard to replace. However, offensively his size is wasted on the perimeter and the same can be side on the defensive side with his shotblocking. Better teams pull him out of the paint by playing small and if the Thunder are focusing on the playoffs, they’ve got to think they can replicate some of his offensive production with Illyasova while not losing too much on the defensive boards. His athleticism will be missed and I’m curious to see if KD is ready to take up the defensive burden that will suddenly end up on his plate now that their most mobile big man is gone. But the Thunder needed to do something as Ibaka has been grumbling more and more about being marginalized.
The new scenery in Orlando should be good for him. Vucevic is now paired with the perfect big man to cover up his faults. Offensively Vuc needs to be close to the basket and Ibaka’s spacing will give him extra room to work as he dives to the rim on PnRs or posts up. Defensively Ibaka has the mobility to show on the perimeter which allows Vuc to hang back and protect the rim, covering up the liabilities he gives up on defense. If the Magic want, they can go uber-athletic and put Ibaka at the 5 and Aaron Gordon at the 4 giving them a pair of shot-eliminating hyperfreaks that will give teams fits around the rim. I imagine Frank Vogel looks at his core players (Payton, Hezonja, Gordon, Ibaka, Vucevic) and gets flashbacks of the type of length that the Pacers had when they were giving Miami nightmares of verticality and limb-filled passing lanes. This team has a much higher offensive ceiling and I’m excited to see how they evolve this year. However, they’ve really got to build a significant role for Ibaka while showing real progress in the win column. If they underperform, Ibaka could walk for nothing.
Financially, this puts the Thunder in a much better position. Where they were fast approaching the time where they’d have to pay Stephen Adams big bucks while also answering the Ibaka money question, they now have Sabonis, an interesting rookie prospect down low and Ilyasova who they can waive if they’d like to save money. Even if they keep them, Oladipo gives them flexibility to let Waiters walk if they need more cap space. Should they keep the whole group together, there’s enough talent that overall, I see this as a net gain on the court. The problem is, this may have hurt them in a potential rematch against the Warriors, particularly if Steph Curry is healthy enough to attack KD and Adams off the dribble. Against most other teams, they’ve probably taken a step forward. Expect a hypermobile line-up of Westbrook/Oladipo/Roberson/KD/Adams with Roberson potentially guarding some stretch-four type players. That’s a scary looking lineup and that doesn’t factor in the shooting they’ve found with Ilyasova or a suddenly valuable-looking Dion Waiters. And in the right match-up, Kanter has proven to be a solid contributor as well.
The real question is: how does this affect KD’s decision? If I’m looking at the guys on the roster, I do see overall improvement and an organizational commitment to maintain a core for the future. However, I don’t see how this wins them the Western Conference Finals of this year. This improves their depth but come playoff time, barring any crazy injuries or moves, it’s looking like the Thunder and Warriors are meeting again. Losing Ibaka will be big in a potential rematch. But overall, I think this makes the Thunder look better and it shows Durant that they will always make the better decision for the longterm future of the franchise. If Durant walks, Oladipo is a great piece to pair with Westbrook and depending on how they handle other contract situations, they would have room to potentially sign another max guy.
If I’m KD it comes down to two choices: OKC or Golden State. He could go to the Spurs but the fit is better with the Warriors. With the Warriors losing in the Finals, he looks more like a “final piece” than hopping on a championship bandwagon. They would sacrifice depth to get him (Potentially losing 3/5 of the following players: Barnes, Ezeli, Bogut, Iguodola, and Livingston) but in the playoffs their rotations would be killer. He slides in relatively easily on the defensive end of the ball, replacing Barnes at the 4 in the Death Lineup. He would probably start the game playing off the ball in the Warriors motion offense and then take an early breather so he could come back in the 2nd Quarter and eat up second unit defenses as the focal point of the offense. Additionally, the Silicon Valley offers him lots of off-court opportunities that are unique to the area as far as branding and entrepreneurship go. The Warriors are the right choice for the best shot to win a title.
However, OKC is the right decision for NBA-financial reasons (you have to think he can recoup a lot of money in endorsements if he goes to Golden State and wins) as well as legacy questions. At the very least, signing for one more year to line up his free agency with Westbrook and taking one more shot allows him to earn more money next year while getting one last stab at a title in OKC. If he still wants that shot, then I think he should sign the 1+1 contract. But if he’s already got one foot out the door, he should probably move on and not waste another year in OKC. If you know you’re going to leave and winning is all that matters, why not give the next organization that extra year to build and plan around you?
Whatever KD decides, OKC did a great job maximizing Ibaka’s trade value into some great pieces for their future. OKC continues to be a fun franchise to watch and the idea of a Westbrook/Oladipo backcourt should scare the bejeezus out of guards all over the league. Can’t wait to see it in action.