The acquisition of Serge Ibaka allows the Orlando Magic to modernize some of their lineups and keep up with the changing NBA game.
Last week, news of the Orlando Magic’s trade for Serge Ibaka was generally met with mixed reactions in the basketball community. Questions about Victor Oladipo’s star potential and Ibaka’s decline last year have made it unclear, at least for now, which team got the upper hand in the deal.
What is clear, however, is with this deal, the Magic are taking the next steps to becoming a modern NBA team.
In the modern NBA, teams have started to figure out these things are important (among other things): Rim protection, the capacity to switch defensive assignments effectively, and outside shooting.
Acquiring Serge Ibaka helps the team in all of these areas, directly or indirectly.
Ibaka’s strengths as a player are primarily on the defensive end, with his shot-blocking prowess being perhaps his most notable skill. During the first five seasons of his career, he finished no lower than third in block percentage in each of those seasons (defined on Basketball-Reference as “an estimate of the percentage of opponent two-point field goal attempts blocked by the player while he was on the floor”) before finishing 10th last season, and he he is also the NBA’s block percentage leader among active players.
It is safe to say he will immediately become the Magic’s best rim protector by a fairly large margin, and he will deliver the goods on that front. Tenth was a down year for him.
The best modern NBA offenses are based on threes and shots at the rim, so an upgrade in paint defense should prove to be a boon for the Magic.
Rumblings about the Magic looking to move starting center Nikola Vucevic further accentuate this modern thinking – replacing Vucevic with Ibaka would help the Magic unleash the “switchy” defensive lineups that have become popular in recent years, thanks to Ibaka’s ability to credibly defend all three frontcourt positions (and even some backcourt players in a pinch). Oladipo, for all of his defensive potential, can only plausibly defend the two backcourt positions, and he offers little rim protection as a backcourt player himself (spectacular blocks notwithstanding).
If the Magic pursue a switchy wing player in free agency (reportedly, the Magic are credible threats to lure Dallas Mavericks forward Chandler Parsons back home), and head coach Frank Vogel continues the work of helping Mario Hezonja become comfortable as a part-time point guard, the Magic could roll out something like a Hezonja-Evan Fournier-Parsons-Aaron Gordon-Ibaka lineup for a couple of stretches each game as well as end-of-game “switch everything” situations (Nicolas Batum would probably be a more ideal free agent target than Parsons for this purpose, but Batum seems unlikely to sign in Orlando at the moment).
Playing Ibaka at center also allows the Magic to keep him closer to the basket where his shot-blocking ability can be most effectively used (as opposed to chasing forwards who might be loitering around the perimeter), and pairing him with Aaron Gordon would create a super-athletic combination that might represent the direction of NBA front lines in the future.
It should be noted Vucevic is still a good player and could very well play a large part on a good Magic team, perhaps in a role similar to what Enes Kanter has in Oklahoma City (energy guy off the bench) or as an offensive fulcrum to lean on when reserve-heavy units are typically in (like in the start of second and fourth quarters).
But Vucevic does not provide the modern defensive switchiness Ibaka can (and whether he would accept a lesser role on the team is a legitimate issue).
On the offensive end, Vucevic also does not provide the shooting range Ibaka does. Although Ibaka’s 3-point percentages have declined over the past three years (38.3 percent in 2014, 37.6 percent in 2015 and 32.6 percent in 2016), his 44.9 percent shooting in this year’s playoffs (against good San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors defenses) showed he still has the ability to stretch defenses and might just need a larger role to regain his rhythm.
Furthermore the Ibaka-Oladipo trade clears a logjam at the wing positions so the Magic’s two best shooters, Hezonja and Evan Fournier, can play more minutes.
In combination with Ibaka, the Magic now potentially have enough outside shooting ability not only to make more threes (obviously), but clear the paint so that point guard Elfrid Payton (who struggles shooting the ball) can drive in to create or score.
What makes Ibaka such a tantalizing talent is a skill set that involves protecting the rim and outside shooting. There are not even a handful of players that have both of these skills.
Ibaka is not a “play-making 4” in the mold of Draymond Green, who is perhaps the standard bearer for modern forwards (dissecting defenses with ball-handling/vision after receiving a pocket pass, facilitating offense near the top of the key, defending multiple positions), but Ibaka’s skill set might be almost as rare.
Whether the Magic improve with this trade remains to be seen and will not be known for a few months – the package of Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and lottery pick Domantas Sabonis was a heavy price for Ibaka.
What is clear already, however, is the Magic are willing to pay to modernize the roster in an effort to win now. If the Magic miss the playoffs for the fifth year in a row, it will not be because they’re stuck in the past.