Rim protection. The Magic searched for it for years, with the results ultimately being fruitless. At this year’s NBA draft, they found it from the most unlikely of sources. Serge Ibaka is coming to Orlando.
In a deal that sent Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the 11th pick, Domantas Sabonis, to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic GM Rob Hennigan was reunited with one of his proudest scouting gems – Serge Ibaka. During his time as director of college and international player personnel for the Thunder, Hennigan was part of the team that found the Congolese big man and picked him from obscurity.
Since being drafted 24th overall in 2008, the havoc-causing power forward has led the league in blocks twice (2012, 2013) on his way to three All-Defensive First Team selections (2012-2014). Though his recent game has been more predicated around the three-point line, the rim running, defensive-minded big is exactly what Frank Vogel needs to run his system in Orlando.
This recent slide toward the three-point line is a bit troubling for Ibaka supporters. After hitting over 53 percent of his shots in each of his first four years, Serge’s numbers have taken a step back over the last two seasons. This is in large part due to his increase of three-pointers, which skyrocketed from 60 attempts in 2013 to 205 in 2014. At that same point in his career, his blocks began to tail off – from 219 rejections in 2013 to 155 in 2014, and the trend has continued since. For Orlando to see a return on their investment, Ibaka will need to return to his rim-protecting ways of days past.
A huge gain for the Magic is Ibaka’s playoff experience. In his eight years with the Thunder, the team has only missed the playoffs twice – his rookie year, and 2014, when the team was plagued with injuries. Ibaka has been tasked with checking the league’s biggest stars in some of their biggest moments, and passed with flying colors.
Though he has been third fiddle to two superstars, Ibaka, along with Vogel, could be enough to turn the Magic’s losing culture on its head. With a no-nonsense head coach at its helm, and a defensive force as its anchor, the late game collapses for Orlando could be a thing of the past.
In a way, this winning culture could also be achieved through addition by subtraction. At the pro level, Victor Oladipo has known nothing but losing. A change of scenery and a diminished roll could work wonders for his long-term future. Under the tutelage of fellow athletic freak Russell Westbrook, his game could finally blossom in a way that the Magic always hoped.
As for the current Magic roster, there are still a few questions to be answered. What will become of Nikola Vucevic, another staple in Orlando? With two new, dynamic bigs in Aaron Gordon and Serge Ibaka being added to the roster, the smooth-shooting Montenegrin will likely see a reduced role in the future. On a faster-paced team, Vucevic may be better suited as a change-of-pace scorer off the bench.
The small lineup that Vogel has been alluding to may feature Ibaka at the center and Gordon at the power forward. This freight train of athletic prowess would be unstoppable in spurts, though neither is as consistent of a scorer as Vucevic.
Another question left unanswered is the need for shooting. Without Oladipo in the two guard spot, Evan Fournier becomes a huge priority this offseason. Rob Hennigan must now devote a healthy portion of his resources to retaining the Magic’s only reliable three-point threat. Ibaka shot only 32 percent from three-point range last season.
It’s still over a week away from the beginning of free agency on July 1st, but the Magic have wasted no time reforming the team for a playoff run. This deal was one of the biggest blockbusters of draft day, but there is much work to be done. Will this bit of boldness be the first move towards righting the ship, and ultimately saving Hennigan’s job? Only time will tell.