The trade that sent Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic wasn’t exactly well received at the time, but general Manager Rob Hennigan was resolute that the Congolese big man would fill a huge hole on the team.
“Serge’s ability to protect the basket, his ability to defend in a very versatile way, we feel, is really going to help fortify a major weakness for us”, said Hennigan at Ibaka’s formal introduction to fans.
Hennigan traded for the player once called Iblocka, the shot-swatting maestro that conjured up a pace-and-space version of his fellow countryman, Dikembe Mutombo.
In the 2011-12 season, there was no more feared defender in the league. That strike-shortened year saw Ibaka post 241 blocks, which led the league by nearly one hundred. His total dwarfed respected paint protectors like Roy Hibbert (128), Dwight Howard (116), and Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler (89).
Casual fans would say that blocks are enough to evaluate a big man’s defense, but the force known as Iblocka could dazzle every skeptic with a different metric.
For the grizzled beat writer who only believed what his eyes told him, Ibaka was not only an athletic specimen, but he dove for loose balls and rebounded like he was on a 10-day contract. For the NBA stathead who trusted only what he could quantify, Ibaka put up four years of solid metrics in defensive win shares, defensive rating, and defensive box plus /minus between 2010 and 2014.
On top of all of that, the Congolese phenom was only 21-years-old when he first led the league in blocks back in 2010. It seemed like Iblocka was here to stay, and Oklahoma City’s director of scouting, the aforementioned Rob Hennigan, was seen as a genius for finding another gem deep in the draft. Oh, how times have changed.
With each passing year, Ibaka added a new trick to his offensive repertoire. When he entered the league, he was mostly a banger. In his first season, his average field goal attempted was just six feet from the basket. His rebound percentage on each play was a sky high 17.2 percent.
During the Iblocka period of his career (2010-14), he was able to perfectly balance his diverse skillset. In those four years, his rebounding rate stayed high at 15.3 percent, as did his field goal and block percentage – 54.7 percent and 7.4 percent respectively. He was also able to take and make a deadly midrange jumper that kept defenses honest.
At the start of the 2014-15 season, he added his deadliest tool yet: the three-pointer.
That first season went surprisingly well, as this new dimension to his game added to the growing legend of Ibaka. Now the Thunder had a fierce rim protector, a physical rebounder, and a three-point threat. As expected, his average field goal distance took an upswing from 10.6 feet to 14.4, but his 37.6 percent mark from beyond the arc would more than justify it.
The next season, his last with the Thunder, would see the first glimpse at a change in play style with the big man – and one that contributed to Oklahoma City viewing him as expendable.
For starters, his three-point shooting dropped to an unreliable 32 percent. Instead of relying on his identity as a physical presence to offset this, his reaction was to take more long two-pointers. In fact, his most common shot last season was a two-pointer greater than 16 feet – the least efficient shot in basketball.
In only a season and a half, Ibaka had become the opposite of what the physical Thunder teams needed him to be. He couldn’t make a three, he shied away from contact, and he saw career-lows in block percentage, rebound percentage, and free throw rate. His block percentage shriveled to 4.5, less than half of the league-leading 9.8 percent he posted in his prime.
Last year’s Ibaka was a totally different player – be it because of his mindset, the emergence or Thunder center Steven Adams, or the worst case – a knee injury that ended his 2014-15 season.
Yes, in the midst of his most versatile season to date, Serge was hit with what is often the kiss of death for a physical big man: a lingering knee injury.
Whatever the case, it’s getting worse, and the Orlando’s Ibaka is more akin to former Magic man Channing Frye than the player he once was. Though Serge is enjoying a career-high in three-point percentage this year at nearly 42 percent, he is a worse shooter by nearly every other metric than last year.
Even after a career day against his former team on Sunday, his two-point shooting percentage, block percentage, and every defensive metric are well into career lows. His rebound rate is hovering just above last season. The most damning part of all of this is his usage rate, which at 21 percent means that he’s using more possessions to accumulate fewer stats.
In a heartfelt interview with the Orlando Sentinel’s Josh Robbins last week, Ibaka encouraged Magic fans, saying “I can do better, but I'm going to keep my head up. I've been there before. This is not new to me.”
Though the season is still young, it would appear that his issues have not been with effort, but with ability. Ibaka is all in with the Orlando Magic franchise, and he’s said multiple times that he loves the thought of being a more pronounced part of an NBA offense.
What is new, however, are the results of those efforts. Never before has he looked so tired on the second day of back-to-backs. Never before have guards and wings blown by him with such ease. His physicality and athleticism are gone, and what’s left is a player struggling to adjust.
What the Magic traded for was Iblocka, the centerpiece of Frank Vogel’s new-look defensive scheme – an elite rim protector. What they got was a league-average big man whose greatest asset comes when he’s 23 feet away from the basket.