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Serge Ibaka and the New OKC: Unpacking the NBA Draft's Biggest Deal

Serge Ibaka was one of the best players on one of the NBA's best teams, until OKC flipped him to Orlando on draft night. Here's what the Thunder were thinking.
June 24, 2016, 4:48pm
Photo by Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder have been a true inner-circle championship contender for so long that it has become oddly easy to take their excellence for granted. Over the past seven seasons, OKC has a .665 winning percentage, which averages out to 54.5 wins a year. Knock out the one season that saw each member of the Thunder big three sit out long stretches due to injury, and those numbers climb to .684 and 56.2, respectively.

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There's a school of thought in the NBA that believes the smartest thing to do with such a team is to keep it together at all costs; win at that level for a long enough period of time, and the odds might eventually turn in your favor the way they did for the Dallas Mavericks in their 2011 championship season. That hasn't happened for the Thunder so far, due to some bad injury luck and postseason run-ins with some historically great teams, but they are definitively in the mix. They appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough this postseason, until they fumbled away a 3-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Re-sign Kevin Durant this summer and Russell Westbrook next summer, and there's no reason the Thunder can't keep right on winning 55 or more games a year for the foreseeable future, and perhaps catch that Mavericks-esque break eventually.

But the Thunder have never really been about that approach. They dealt away James Harden when it became clear they wouldn't be able to sign him, and on draft night they once again opted to break up the core trio that has kept them near the top of the Western Conference standings. This time, OKC sent Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for a package that returned Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the draft rights to No. 11 overall pick Domantis Sabonis.

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There were reports after the draft that Ibaka had grown increasingly frustrated with his declining role in the offense and may have sought to leave in free agency next offseason. That plus the fact that OKC soon faces the prospect of paying Durant, Westbrook, Steven Adams, and Enes Kanter a combined $110 million per year by 2018 likely contributed to their decision to find a new home for Ibaka before he left to find one himself.

After the Harden trade, the consensus assumption was that Ibaka would step up his usage and become a true No. 3 option, but that didn't really happen. His usage rate went from 15.8 percent pre-trade to 18.6 percent after it. That's an increase, but still one that left Ibaka using fewer possessions than he would have if you simply divvied them up equally between all five players on the floor. As such, Ibaka became nearly as much of a lightning rod for criticism over the past few years as Westbrook and former coach Scott Brooks; the Thunder's decision to pay Ibaka while moving on from Harden drew the ire of those that felt Oklahoma City's offensive shortcomings, especially late in close games, stemmed from not having another reliable option beyond KD and Russ.

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It's true that Ibaka's gradual drift away from the basket hurt his rebounding numbers and often turned him into a bystander within the offense. It's also true that he never developed a truly reliable post-up repertoire, which did not endear him to the crustwads populating studio halftime shows or the segment of fans that longs for a return to 1990s-style grind-it-out basketball. And it's true that Ibaka was never much of a playmaker with the ball in his hands—he relied heavily on Westbrook to get his shots and never assisted on more than 5.2 percent of his teammates' baskets while on the floor.

Hmm, yes, a valuable skill indeed. Photo by Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The reason none of this was disqualifying is that Ibaka was also integral to a truly top-flight NBA defense. He became the team's starting power forward midway through the 2010-11 season, and Oklahoma City has the NBA's eighth best defense since that time. The strategies used both by Brooks and then by Billy Donovan leveraged the team's collective length and athleticism to force opponents into uncomfortable shots; they packed the paint against drives and aggressively closed out on the perimeter, knowing that if they ran players off the three-point line they'd have to pull up before daring to challenge Ibaka at the rim. Those tactics were very successful at times and moderately successful at others, but they were almost always more successful with Ibaka on the court. During his time with the team, OKC allowed 1.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with Ibaka in the game, per NBA.com; Ibaka-led units held opponents to a restricted-area shooting percentage 6.5 percent lower than those without him, which is essentially the equivalent of going from the bottom ten in restricted-area defense to No. 1 in the league. That's how good a rim protector Ibaka is, and it's why Orlando was willing to give up this much to get him.

Ibaka's overall athleticism and specifically his ability to switch onto smaller players—which he showcased for much of the Western Conference Finals to jaw-dropping effect before Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson went supernova—will be badly missed, especially as more and more teams begin using lineups built around like-sized players who can make plays off the bounce. Even with Ibaka on board, the Thunder slipped to 12th in defensive efficiency this past season, although they found another gear in the playoffs, and yet another one in Games 3 and 4 against Golden State. Ibaka was a huge part of that, and there is no obvious path to staving off a downturn in his absence. It will take 82 games of WCF-level locked-in defense from Durant, a degree of focus and restraint that Westbrook has not yet shown in his NBA career, and major steps forward from both Oladipo and Adams. And even that might not be enough.

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Sabonis, who figures to soak up a decent portion of the available minutes in Ibaka's absence, is nowhere near Ibaka's equal on defense and never will be; the same is true of both starting power-forward options, Kanter and Ilyasova. This is no knock on them, really—very few big men anywhere have Ibaka's instincts, savvy, and athleticism. Sabonis and Kanter are both post-up brutes and excellent rebounders, particularly on the offensive end. That should help inject a degree of variety into the Thunder offense that Ibaka couldn't quite give them, even if there are likely to be some diminishing returns when Kanter shares the floor with Westbrook and Durant.

If the Thunder plan on starting Oladipo next to Westbrook in the backcourt, which seems likely, they may also need to start Ilyasova simply to drag opposing big men at least a step away from the paint. Oladipo is just barely a better outside shooter than Westbrook (33.9 percent from three in his three NBA seasons), although he does well on catch-and-shoot looks and from the corners. Still, shooting is not Oladipo's strong suit, and the same is true of Russ. Defenses give both of them major slough-off treatment when the ball isn't in their hands. Given that Adams doesn't necessarily need to be guarded outside the immediate area of the basket, the Thunder will have to come up with something to generate room for Durant (assuming he returns) and Westbrook to operate, and for Oladipo to attack the basket.

A high-percentage look imo. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After averaging 6.6 drives a game as a rookie, Oladipo amped the aggression way up in his second season and drove to the basket 9.2 times a night. Last season, though, that number dipped all the way to 4.9 a game, south of guys like Patrick Beverley, Donald Sloan, and Jarrett Jack. Pairing Westbrook and Oladipo gives Oklahoma City the most explosive, athletic backcourt duo in the league, which is saying quite a bit. The Thunder will want to get them on the move toward the basket whenever possible, and there will be world-shattering, rim-endangering action if they can do it. But both players need ample space to do what they do best, and KD can't provide all of it by himself.

Despite his issues as a shooter, Oladipo is likely the most complete two-guard the Thunder have had since Harden was in town. Kevin Martin didn't play defense. Jeremy Lamb never worked out. Thabo Sefolosha had the slowest release on his shot of anyone this side of Andrea Bargnani, which meant that defenses could ignore him even though he was a decent shooter. Andre Roberson is not a decent shooter. Dion Waiters, despite his avant-garde playoff heroics, remains Dion Waiters.

Oladipo has always had the potential to be a plus defender, and while he slipped in that regard from his rookie year to his sophomore campaign both he and former Magic head coach Scott Skiles said a lot of that stuff was corrected in Year 3. Freed up to focus more on defense than offense while playing between Westbrook and Durant, he should be able to reach new heights as a force on that end. He's also capable of making plays off the bounce more effectively than any of Westbrook's backcourt mates since Harden. Oladipo's career 4.0 assists per game average is solid, and he's one of only 46 players to average at least 15 points, four rebounds, and four assists across the first three seasons of their NBA career; Westbrook, as it happens, is another. Working as a secondary playmaker and spot-up shooter should help goose his efficiency, and could nudge him toward becoming the player the Magic hoped they were getting when they tabbed him with the No. 2 pick of the 2013 draft. If OKC can unlock that player, they'll have effectively traded one defensive force for another.

Oladipo is also set to hit restricted free agency after the 2016-17 season, which differentiates him from Ibaka, who could walk without the Thunder getting anything back. Considering the contract situations of Durant (UFA this summer) and Westbrook (UFA next summer), it doesn't hurt to have young supporting talent on hand. Between Adams, Oladipo, Kanter, Roberson, and Cameron Payne, OKC have five rotation players 25 or younger surrounding their two stars. That alone is not enough to push them over the top, but they also have Sabonis, Ilyasova, whatever they can get out of Mitch McGary and Josh Huestis, and the opportunity to sell veteran ring-chasers on coming play with KD and Russ—if they re-sign, that is.

And that, as always with the Thunder, is the biggest question. Durant and Westbrook had both just signed extensions and so couldn't really do much when the Thunder traded Harden. But they're both set to be free agents within the next 375 days, and if they don't appreciate the team jettisoning another core star, they can and will vote with their feet. Sam Presti took a risk in dealing away a quality vet who has been with KD and Russ for a long time. There's a high ceiling to the move, given the variety of talent the Thunder added, but if it pushes the stars out the door it will be hard to spin it as a success. This is the Thunder way: win or lose, they're not content to wait.

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