Serge Ibaka’s trade to the Orlando Magic signifies a new start for the big man. He’ll go from being a third wheel to a focal point.
The 2011 NBA Slam Dunk Contest was a big night for the league. The champion was All-Star rookie Blake Griffin, and he won in style via his leap over the NBA’s official vehicle. But it was a big night for Serge Ibaka too. His phenomenal performance was completely overshadowed.
Most players save their better dunks for the later rounds, but not Ibaka. He stepped right up in the first round and dunked the ball from the foul line. If that wasn’t enough, then you can always check out his toy bite dunk. You have to see that one to believe it.
His attitude during a contest that took place more five years ago is indicative of the way he still plays now. During his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Ibaka developed a reputation as an elite shot blocker and defender. Not a star but a guy who did the little things to enable them.
Not anymore. On the day of the draft, the Thunder traded the best shot blocker in franchise history to the Orlando Magic. Ibaka thought he was going to get more touches last season in Oklahoma City. It didn’t happen and the Magic are going to give him that shot.
Orlando finished last season 20th in defending the restricted area (the arc under the basket). New head coach Frank Vogel built his dominant defenses in Indiana around rim protection (remember when Roy Hibbert was good?) so Ibaka and fellow new addition Bismack Biyombo will fit right in.
Ibaka is a beast on defense. He’s finished in the top ten in blocks per game and block percentage in each of his six NBA seasons. Opponents shot just 43.3% at the rim when Ibaka contested the shot and 45.4% when it was Biyombo, per Nylon Calculus.
Plays like this show off Ibaka’s incredible athleticism and versatility. He starts the defensive sequence out at the three-point line and rotates to the opposite side of the court to block the shot.
Check this play out from Game 4 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals. Ibaka picks up Harrison Barnes (Don’t laugh) on the perimeter and sticks with the much smaller wing player all the way to the basket for the huge block.
Okay, one more. Ibaka switches onto Eric Bledsoe and the point guard tries to take him to the rim. Nada.
Serge was always a star on defense, but his offensive game didn’t open up until he started working on him jump shot.
Ibaka’s development into a three-point shooter began with 57 attempts from beyond the arc in 2012-13 and culminated two seasons later with him letting it rip to a total of 205 attempts. He shot an impressive 37.3% during that three-season span, and it seemed like the Thunder were getting a versatile weapon. That’s why last season’s outcome was so surprising.
The big man nailed just 32.6% (60-184) of his attempts and averaged his lowest points per game total (14.2) since the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.
The most concerning part of Ibaka’s three-point woes is he was wide open (closest defender 6+ feet away) on nearly 70% of his attempts from downtown and converted at just a 34.4% clip. He won’t have nearly as many open looks in Orlando.
The Magic will have to hope last season was a fluke. They traded for the Ibaka that can do this.
Vintage Serge. His defense starts a fast break and Durant rewards the big man with a three.
According to NBA.com, Ibaka struggled mightily in both. He was in the 39th percentile as the roll man scoring just 0.96 points per possession and the 40th percentile in spot ups scoring just 0.90 points per possession.
Serge has a lot to prove coming off a down season. Not just to the Magic, but to potential suitors in free agency in a contract year. The power forward market will be competitive, as both Paul Millsap and the aforementioned Blake Griffin are likely to be available.
The days of being a third wheel to Durant and Westbrook are over. Without an attacking point guard or an elite scorer to put pressure on the defense Serge’s career has changed.
Ibaka doesn’t have to be remembered for playing with Durant and Westbrook. He can write his own narrative now. It begins this season in Orlando.