Orlando Magic 2017 Season Review: What Went Wrong — Serge Ibaka

Nov 3, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) and Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka (7) go for the ball in the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic won 102-94. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 3, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) and Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka (7) go for the ball in the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic won 102-94. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic made a big bet on Serge Ibaka taking their defense to new heights. The bet fell flat and the team was left picking up the pieces.

After the initial shock of the Orlando Magic’s sudden trade of Victor Oladipo to the Oklahoma City Thunder subsided, the question of what the Magic could and would do with Serge Ibaka remained.

For four years, the Magic were seemingly looking for a way to resolve the Nikola Vucevic question. His jump shooting and offensive ability made him unique among centers, but his defensive shortcomings were evident. And there were only so many power forwards who could play in the modern NBA and provide the rim protection to cover for Nikola Vucevic’s shortcomings.

Serge Ibaka was the model. He was the player the Magic sought.

And so, the team believed Ibaka would cure much of the Magic’s defensive ails. He would become the rim protector the team so desperately needed. His championship experience would push the Magic over the top and into the Playoffs for the first time in five years.

It was a gamble for sure for the Magic to trade their young, budding star for a more established player who could succeed in a bigger role while transforming the Magic’s roster. Perhaps, it was a gamble worth taking considering the Magic’s position and desire to take a step forward. They could not stand pat and needed something bold to move forward.

The gamble did not pay off.

It was not entirely Serge Ibaka’s fault. By all accounts, Ibaka had a good season with the Magic statistically and was perhaps the team’s best player. He averaged what would have been a career-high 15.1 points per game, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. His statistics in key areas, including his 48.8 percent field goal percentage and 38.8 percent 3-point shooting, were in line with his recent averages.

Ibaka did not get worse this season. He played at least at the level he played at before. And even with increased usage — he had a 20.8 usage rate, the highest of his career — Ibaka increased his production and was an offensive leader on the team.

But Ibaka did not deliver on the promise the Magic had hoped from him. That will ultimately be his legacy in pinstripes.

It was not entirely on his shoulders. The Magic created a mismatched roster that failed to take advantage of his offensive skills. The team acquired Bismack Biyombo to further muddy the front court and lacked shooting to create space offensively. The whole experiment failed for many reasons.

But Ibaka never delivered the defensive change the Magic needed.

It is true, Ibaka posted solid defensive numbers. Again, they were in line with recent seasons. He posted 1.7 defensive win shares and a +0.4 defensive box plus-minus, according to Basketball-Reference. These numbers were slightly down from recent seasons.

But the Magic needed the Ibaka that was a defensive terror to make this whole system work. The Ibaka that blew up the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors in last year’s Playoffs.

There were times when Ibaka looked like that player. But they were far too few.

Some of it is certainly because the league changed dramatically this year. Teams began embracing small ball much more and spread the floor with even centers taking a record number of 3-pointers this year. Ibaka was simply not around the basket as much as he used to be defensively. The same problems persisted.

Ibaka did not transform the Magic’s defense in any way. The team struggled with him on the floor defensively. The Magic had a 108.1 defensive rating with Ibaka on the floor. The team was not any better defensively because of his presence.

Observationally, it looked like Ibaka was a step slow. He seemed unable to close the gap and cut off dribble penetration when it came at him or repel shots at the rim the way the team expected. Ibaka’s slow decline seemed to pick up steam with the spotlight squarely on him and the Magic’s Playoff hopes dependent on his play.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Orlando’s key gamble this season fell flat. Ibaka was unable to step his game up into a new role.

Again, this is not entirely his fault. The Magic were right to risk on Ibaka being able to increase his role. And Ibaka was excited to do so too. It just did not work.

Sometimes gambles do not work.

But undoubtedly this was a bigger risk that had bigger consequences. The Magic may have been in a position to take this kind of a risk, but giving up Oladipo to do so was costly. Orlando kind of got to the end of the road in their rebuild. Ibaka was the end of that road.

The Magic made Ibaka the centerpiece to their team and put a lot of trust in his ability to deliver for them. It did not work out.

Ibaka individually had a good season, but Orlando had to cut its losses. They admitted this was a failure before the season even ended. Faced with his free agency and losing him without any compensation, the Magic cashed him in for Terrence Ross and a future first-round pick.

Next: What Went Wrong: Frank Vogel

It was clear the bet did not work.