The Orlando Magic have had a long and rough road back to relevance, but the addition of Serge Ibaka in 2016-17 was among the stranger moves made.
The career of forward Serge Ibaka can be neatly split into two parts. The first, as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, in which he helped a young and exciting team reach the NBA Finals before they appeared ready to do so in 2012. They never got back there again, and Ibaka was preferred over James Harden as part of their long-term core.
The second half of his career, which is still ongoing, has seen him play up north with the Toronto Raptors. In much the same way as he was with the Thunder, Ibaka was the third or fourth-best guy on a roster, only this time he was able to get over the hump and win a championship last year. Neatly divided, although at 30 there is still plenty of time for Ibaka to move again.
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Nestled in amongst these two stops, however, is a disastrous 56 game run with the Orlando Magic which took place in the 2016-17 season. It was poor for a lot of reasons, and we are going to examine them all, but how much of it was actually Ibaka’s fault? Could he have ended up turning things around there, if given more time?
The short answer to that question is no, and it has nothing to do with Ibaka. The Magic at that point in their prolonged rebuild were a desperate mix of young and unproven players, and guys who were not qualified to have a bigger role. This was the season when Jeff Green looked like he’d rather spend a Sunday afternoon picking out tiles for his bathroom than play basketball.
But rather than embrace the continued losing in the hopes of finding a star in the draft (which to that point they had not with Victor Oladipo and Aaron Gordon as their top lottery picks), then-general manager Rob Hennigan instead opted to trade Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the draft rights to Domantas Sabonis. That is a hard sentence to type out.
Oladipo at that point didn’t look like he was going to be the borderline superstar he is today with the Indiana Pacers, and not all fans were sad to see him go. But knowing what we do about how important both he and Sabonis (a first time All-Star this season) are to the Pacers now makes this even harder to accept.
So the trade itself always seemed destined to set Ibaka up for failure. As their best player, he immediately lowered their ceiling for how good they could be in the future, but was able to squeeze some wins out of this terrible roster in the short-term because of his veteran guile and ability to stretch the floor and make shots. This is the worst place a franchise can be in.
Take nothing away from Ibaka however, as he did his best to hold up his end of the bargain. The 15.1 points he averaged while with the Magic were a career-high (up until this season when he managed 16.0 with the Raptors), and the 38.8 percent he shot from 3-point range was a welcome sight for a roster that was little threat from beyond the arc at that point.
The Magic were only marginally better defensively when Ibaka was on the floor (109.8, as opposed to the 110.5 they averaged over the course of the year), but were also that little bit better offensively when he was out there too (104.7, while they averaged 103.7 on the year). Small gains perhaps, but unlike others who have passed through Orlando, Ibaka was at least trying.
Really though the main reason this move didn’t work out for longer, other than the timeline of Ibaka not matching up with that of the rest of the roster at all, was because of the players already on the roster, and how they did not compliment him. Elfrid Payton was the point guard, and although he was always eager to pass the ball to Ibaka, he wasn’t doing much more than that.
No, the real and glaring problem here, as it was for the Magic for years, was the fact that they already employed Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo. Trying to fit the two of those onto the court together, which former head coach Frank Vogel did try and must have led to many sleepless nights, was hard enough. Adding in Ibaka however, was essentially impossible.
Vucevic was good then and is the Magic’s best player now, and it would have been interesting to see how both he and Ibaka could have evolved together. We never got the chance though, because Biyombo had to be accommodated as well. (At four years, $72 million after basically two good playoff series, he wasn’t going anywhere, or so it seemed at the time).
Vucevic and Ibaka have similarities to their games, especially offensively although Ibaka is the better defender, and two bigs who can score is not the way teams find success today. Still, it could have been something. Instead, Biyombo played in 81 games that year, starting 27 of them. Then again, Jodie Meeks was able to start 10 games as well, which shows you where the Magic were at that point.
A dark place, and it only started to get better once Ibaka was traded to the Raptors. The small silver lining being that they were able to get back Terrence Ross in the deal, who has gone on to become a firm fan favorite for the Magic. When you consider what they gave up to get Ibaka in the first place, and how it went down once he was there, this goes down as a loss for the franchise that is still painful to revisit now.