Why the Thunder traded Serge Ibaka

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Chris Mannix
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Oklahoma City’s reasons for trading Serge Ibaka boiled down to one: A year from now, the Thunder didn’t believe they could keep him. It wasn’t a money issue, as team officials have stressed that the days of being hell bent on staying under the cap are behind them. For Oklahoma City, it was the staunch belief that Ibaka’s desire for a larger role would lead him to leave the Thunder when his contract expired after next season. Playing third wheel to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook didn’t suit Reggie Jackson, and Oklahoma City didn’t believe Ibaka was interested in signing up for another tour of duty in that position, either.

Serge Ibaka dunks against the Golden State Warriors during Game 6 of the West finals. (AP)
Serge Ibaka dunks against the Golden State Warriors during Game 6 of the West finals. (AP)

This is what Oklahoma City does. A financial stalemate with James Harden? Boom, Harden is shipped to Houston. A standoff with Jackson? Here’s a one-way ticket to Detroit, Reggie. Ibaka never demanded a trade, league sources told The Vertical, and he put together a productive season (12.6 points and 6.8 rebounds) while sharing the frontcourt rotation with the emerging Steven Adams and a slightly more reliable Enes Kanter. But the Thunder are proactive; the possibility of them losing an asset for nothing is unsettling. To Oklahoma City, getting 75 cents on the dollar – effectively what they got, maybe more, from Orlando in Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to rookie Domantas Sabonis – will always be the preferred route.

No question: Ibaka craved an enhanced role. “It’s hard sometimes when you play so hard on defense, then you come to offense and you’re going to be out there in the corner for four, five, six, sometimes eight minutes and you don’t touch the ball,” Ibaka told reporters in March. He’s 26 and a year away from entering the gold rush that is the 2017 offseason. He has not been an elite defender in years; a run of three straight years on the NBA’s All-Defensive first team ended in ’14, and he didn’t pick up a single vote for Defensive Player of the Year this past season. The path to a $25 million per year contract might be through a 20-point-per-game season, and that was never happening in Oklahoma City.

Last season, Ibaka believed it could. In the months after Oklahoma City hired coach Billy Donovan, Ibaka formed a strong bond with the incoming coach, league sources told The Vertical, and entered the season believing he would have an expanded role in the offense. He didn’t. “There was an expectation of a larger role,” Ibaka’s agent, Andy Miller, told The Vertical. “It was overpromised and under-delivered. Everyone should be held to the same level of accountability across the board.”

Still: Trading Ibaka is a risk. Not because of the impact it could have on Durant’s pending free agency; Thunder general manager Sam Presti declined to address any specific conversations with Durant about Ibaka to reporters on Thursday, but it’s unfathomable to think Presti would make such a significant deal without a sense of how his soon-to-be-free-agent star felt about it. And while Ibaka’s bond with Durant and Westbrook runs deep – the trio has been together since 2009 – his relationships with several teammates deteriorated last season, league sources told The Vertical, as players chafed at Ibaka’s growing desire for an enhanced role. Durant, friends say, had no issue with the Ibaka deal, and he has expressed excitement about the acquisition of Oladipo, who dropped 37 points on the Thunder last February.

So how does Oklahoma City – entering a season that could be just as critical as this past one, with Westbrook headed to free agency and Durant, should he sign a one-year deal, potentially joining him – replace Ibaka? Kanter is an obvious choice. His defense remains suspect, but he’s a solid scorer and a fierce offensive rebounder. Adams showed the ability to defend power forwards in the playoffs, which would make it easier to hide Kanter on that end. Ilyasova is a floor-spacing option, and Andre Roberson gobbled up offensive rebounds as a makeshift four-man in the conference finals.

Oladipo – a two-way two-guard with one year remaining on his rookie deal – softens the blow. He’s protection in the event Dion Waiters, a restricted free agent, and his contract demands get otherworldly – a possibility in a rising cap summer no executive can accurately predict. Oladipo’s sticky defense fits a need for a team that will have to stifle Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry the next few years, and his burning desire to win fits the culture Oklahoma City has built. On Thursday, Tom Crean, Oladipo’s coach at Indiana, texted Oladipo to ask how he felt about the trade. Oladipo’s response: A pair of rings.

Ultimately, this trade could work out for all involved. Oklahoma City gets cheap depth and a starting two-guard; Ibaka gets a clean slate and a bigger role with a young, rebuilding team desperately in need of the presence of a player with a winning pedigree. For seven years the Ibaka-Thunder pairing was a successful one, and it’s ending when it’s best for everyone.

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