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Serge Ibaka trade a small step in right direction for Orlando Magic

Orlando probably got about as good a return as it could have expected.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

First, the particulars of Tuesday’s trade, as reported by The Woj:

Toronto receives: Serge Ibaka
Orlando receives: Terrence Ross, 2017 1st-round pick (lower between Clippers and Raptors)

Long story short, I like the deal. This was probably on the high end of what Orlando could have expected to get back (Zach Lowe noted that a lot of the other offers were pretty miserable), and while the pipe dream was to get the player-pick-prospect trifecta, that return was never going to occur for a player three months away from hitting free agency.

Let’s get this out of the way first: comparing this trade to the one the Magic used to get Ibaka in the first place isn’t especially productive, for a few reasons. NBA Twitter quickly broke into two camps: the “Wow, this looks bad when you think about how they gave up Victor Oladipo and the 11th pick” naysayers and the “You have to look at this in a vacuum, doesn’t matter what they traded before, this is a good return now” folks.

I’m much closer to the latter group, but there’s another reason the comparison doesn’t really make sense: the players and assets involved all have different values than they did over the summer. A full year of Ibaka plus a reasonable chance he might re-sign with the Magic is certainly much more worthwhile than 25-30 games of him plus very little chance he re-signs. The 2017 pick, whether it comes via the Raptors or Clippers, is more valuable by virtue of our proximity to the 2017 draft, compared to dealing for the same pick in the middle of the 2016 draft.

So yeah, trading Oladipo and a 2016 lottery pick for Ross and a 2017 pick in the 20s would have been ludicrous, but that’s not the trade we’re analyzing. I’ve even seen the Tobias Harris trade lumped into this whole discussion, by dint of Ersan Ilyasova’s inclusion in the original Ibaka deal. That trade was plenty bad on its own merits, but there’s no need to lump it in with current events.

With that all said, here’s three big ways this changes Orlando for the better:

Ross fills the Magic’s greatest position of need

The Magic are hardly without holes after this deal. Point guard is still very much a long-term question, with Elfrid Payton flipping in and out of the starting lineup, with Nikola Vucevic potentially still on the trade block, and with Mario Hezonja’s future uncertain, at best.

Still, as I concluded a month ago, the Magic’s greatest need was neither in the backcourt nor among the bigs, but on the wings, a group that as a whole has played at or below replacement-level across the season. Adding a halfway-decent small forward to the roster stands to help the Magic just by supplanting minutes used by Jeff Green or Hezonja, or even Aaron Gordon’s time at small forward (more on him later).

As it turns out, Ross is a halfway-decent small forward! He’s not amazing, he’s not terrible, just good, and that’s good enough. By all accounts, Ross is having the best year of his career, posting career highs in points, rebounds, steals, and blocks (whether you’re measuring per-game or using more advanced metrics like block percentage or rebound rate). Here’s the rundown for this year, per Basketball-Reference:

Ross Stats per 100 possessions

2016-17 25 TOR 54 0 1207 8.8 20 0.441 4 10.7 0.375 4.8 9.3 0.516 1.7 2.1 0.82 0.6 5.2 5.8 1.9 2.2 0.8 1.4 3.4 23.4 112 110
Career 363 132 8444 7.9 18.8 0.422 3.7 9.8 0.376 4.3 9.1 0.471 1.5 1.9 0.799 0.9 4.9 5.8 2 1.6 0.7 1.7 3.9 21.1 106 108

Ross’ schtick is pretty straightforward: he’s a volume three-point shooter, as he attempts more than half of his shots beyond the arc, and the large majority of those three-pointers occur in catch-and-shoot situations, per tracking data. Like most shooters, his accuracy falls off pretty substantially when he’s closely guarded (30 percent when defended 2-4 feet away), but he still should provide more gravity than either Gordon or Green were, shooting sub-30% on all 3-pointers this season, not just the closely guarded ones.

Encouragingly, when he does take the ball to the basket, he’s very good at finishing in that area, hitting a very healthy 63 percent of his attempts within 10 feet of the basket. About once or twice a game, he’ll handle the ball in a pick-and-roll, and in that small sample he’s done very well, shooting a 57.3 effective field goal percentage. He’s not doing anything eye-boggling, but he fills the “make some shots and handle the ball a little bit” role nicely.

If you want an idea of what you’re going to see, you don’t have to look far to find a similar player. Jodie Meeks, in the short window between disappointing injuries, played almost the same exact way. This season, they’ve both used 35 percent of their possessions on spot-ups, and they’ve both done very well in that capacity (Meeks 56 eFG%, Ross 54 eFG%). Like Ross, Meeks sparingly but successfully handled the ball when necessary. Ignoring the glorious 16 minutes of the Anthony Brown era, Orlando’s offense has been at its very best while Meeks played this season.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Reshuffling the rotation helps everyone...especially Gordon

In summary, Ross will fill the small-forward role on offense admirably. You know who doesn’t? Aaron Gordon! You know who won’t have to try anymore? Aaron Gordon!

Defensively, the Magic have reasons to try to keep Gordon on the wing as much as possible, to match him up against those perimeter powerhouses that seemingly every team has. Offensively, however, he’s been totally miscast. All those things Ross is pretty good at? Gordon is very, very bad at them, and just letting somebody like Ross take over those responsibilities frees him up to do more interesting things. Check that link for a more thorough breakdown, but the tl;dr is that “less spotting up, more super dunk smash” should be the plan going forward.

Here’s the big question: can Gordon match Ibaka’s production at power forward, even if it comes in a very different form? Ibaka was arguably the most (offensively) productive player on the team, shooting even better than Ross from long range in the best offensive season of the big man’s career. If the Magic get better, it’s not because Ross outproduces what Ibaka did before, it’s because he’ll do something similar, and Gordon will do much more.

The draft pick helps, but don’t overrate it

“First-round draft pick” sounds a lot sexier than “24th pick,” but the latter is about where we should expect it to land. If the draft really is as deep as everyone suggests, the Magic could still find something useful, and they could always stand to have a few more shots on some late-round fliers or solid backups.

It’s not hard to imagine that pick getting moved to someone else, either. Depending on how the draft shakes out, the Magic might move up using a package of that pick and, say, a D.J. Augustin or C.J. Watson, or even Meeks if they’re not interested in dealing with the injury pains. Upgrade that package to include the likes of Vucevic, and maybe that gets Orlando into mid-round, late-lottery territory. If they don’t make any more moves before the deadline, or even if they do, that pick can be used to grease the wheels come draft night on some other deal.

It’s all about next season

If any of you are still harboring hopes of a miracle month of wins, a la the Miami Heat, it’s probably time to give those up. Even if the Magic won 60 percent of their games the rest of the way, that’s still going to fall short of the eighth seed in the East.

No, the rest of this season needs to be about figuring out what they’ve got so they can figure out what they’re gonna get going forward. Does the Ross-Gordon pairing work at the forward positions? Can the Magic defend with this new lineup? Is there hope for Hezonja? Answering these questions will be important for the offseason, regardless who’s in charge by then.

All-in-all, this deal worked out well for the Magic. Getting a solid 26-year old with two years left on his contract at a position of need, plus a draft pick, is a fine return for a couple pointless months of Ibaka, followed by him moving on to another team with nothing to show for it. Rob Hennigan’s got plenty to answer for from the rest of the rebuild, but this trade is a small step in the right direction.