It's hard to imagine the Thunder getting a fatter return for Ibaka as he enters the final year of his contract. The closest recent analogue is probably the Charlotte Hornets' acquisition a year ago of Nicolas Batum from the Portland Trail Blazers -- another instance of a contender with a huge pending free agent (LaMarcus Aldridge) dealing away an almost-All-Star on the verge of a massive pay raise. The Blazers knew Aldridge was fine with Batum leaving, just as the Thunder know Durant is fine with Ibaka heading elsewhere in his prime, per several league sources.
Ibaka bristled about his lack of touches in Oklahoma City and for the past year has been sending signals he might leave in free agency, sources have told ESPN.com. Goran Dragic and his camp agitated in the same way as the Suns imploded during the final year of Dragic's deal; the Heat swooped in and nabbed the guard for two first-round picks and zero relevant players.
Utah's George Hill might be a better player than Ibaka, and the Jazz just snagged Hill on the final year of his contract for the No. 12 pick -- and only the No. 12 pick. Ibaka is better than Markieff Morris, but he's also set to earn nearly four times more than Morris in 2018 and 2019; Washington swiped Morris from Phoenix for the No. 13 pick and two guys the Suns waived almost immediately.
Hell, it's not even a stretch to argue the Thunder got more for Ibaka than they did for James Harden back in 2012. Steven Adams is a monster, but there was no way to know the Thunder would be able to draft a player so damn good -- and with such a delightful mustache -- with the centerpiece pick (No. 11 in 2013) in the Harden deal.
By essentially any precedent, the Thunder got an above-market return for a plateauing, low-usage big man who will be chasing a $30 million-plus max contract a year from now. Some deal like this was inevitable. Durant and Russell Westbrook are due new super-max deals over the next two summers; Adams has developed into a max-level player; and the Thunder signed Enes Kanter at last summer's version of a max contract.
For most teams, it is just not possible to juggle five or six huge contracts at once. Even if the league's massive TV deal and rising salary cap make it financially viable, Thunder general manager Sam Presti has always resisted tying up all his cap flexibility in four or five players -- and churning the minimum bin for a new supporting cast of aging mercenaries every summer. Harden became players and picks; Reggie Jackson become Dion Waiters, and with Waiters set for a hefty new deal, the Thunder used Ibaka to find an even better two-way shooting guard, Oladipo, with one year left on a rookie contract.
When the Thunder dealt away first-round picks to get Waiters and Kanter, Presti likely already knew they could recoup one in an Ibaka trade.
The move works regardless of Durant's future. If he leaves, the Thunder have gotten younger and deeper, restocking themselves for a doomsday scenario in which both Durant and Westbrook bolt. If Durant stays, they've upgraded from Waiters with a bulldog attacker who enjoys defense and can fit snugly in lots of roles -- as a starter over Andre Roberson, a sixth man and a fixture in small-ball lineups.
Durant will play power forward in those small-ball lineups, and he showed against the Warriors in this year's Western Conference finals that he can almost mimic Ibaka's panic-inducing rim protection. If he can do that when it really matters alongside Adams, the Thunder had no need to spend 30 percent of the salary cap on Ibaka. He was effectively expendable.
And yet, I can't shake the feeling that the fallout from this trade will be more complicated. At the very least, I'm curious -- especially about whether Ibaka, still just 26, might prove that his disturbing signs of early decline are more the product of demoralizing third- and fourth-wheel status in Oklahoma City.
For the past half-decade, we've all obsessed over the unicorn big man who can both shoot 3s and protect the rim. If you crafted a frontcourt partner to balance the weaknesses of Orlando's Nikola Vucevic, you would design that sort of player. The Magic just got that guy, and people are laughing at them.
That speaks a lot to how fast the league has evolved. As I wrote last spring, switching defenses have transformed the "stretch 4" into an almost antiquated concept. A big who can launch stand-still 3s is much less of a threat if defenses just switch every screening action, preventing him from popping open and daring him to do something against a smaller defender.
Coaches a year ago started to use the term "playmaking 4" instead of "stretch 4." A playmaking 4 can post up smaller guys after switches, draw double-teams and whip passes around the floor. Run a playmaking 4 off the arc, and he can shift into drive-and-kick mode. Draymond Green is a playmaking 4. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Myles Turner could develop into playmaking centers with 3-point range. They are the next frontier.
The change came fast, and it made Ibaka look old-fashioned. He has basically no post game, though he can face up for jumpers over smaller dudes. He has never dished even 100 assists in a season and looks uncomfortable making plays in space. He needs a beat to map the floor, and in that beat, good defenses slam every window shut.
Ibaka would occasionally show flashes of a more instinctual game -- a quick extra pass to the corner or a catch-and-drive attack that would end in a smooth running hook. To justify this trade, and his next contract, those flashes will have to become more regular. He'll also have to bounce his 3-point percentage back into the high-30s and prove he can hit them without Durant and Westbrook generating easy looks.
Those looks were a given in Oklahoma City, and there will be times when the Thunder feel Ibaka's absence. There just aren't a lot of guys with his skill set. He has enormous value just standing around for 3s and intimidating fools at the rim. Durant reminded us what he can do on defense when he dials in, but pogo-stick rejections of poor Shaun Livingston aside, he's not quite on Ibaka's level as a possession-by-possession deterrent.
Oklahoma City's non-Durant options at power forward all lack something. Kanter and Ilyasova struggle defending the perimeter. Roberson can't shoot, and in Oladipo, the Thunder have found yet another shaky long-range option opponents will happily leave open -- and another guy who needs the ball. (He's also due a big raise after this season, though he won't earn as much as Ibaka). Assume 30-plus minutes for Adams, and a lot of Thunder lineups would feature four so-so shooters around Durant.
Sliding Ibaka to center was always the Thunder's super-spacing trump card, and it's gone. Small lineups with Ibaka -- and not Adams -- turned the Golden State series in Games 3 and 4 and temporarily solved the Warriors' Death Lineups. To win four series against the very best competition, you need a lineup for every situation. The Thunder have lost a bit of their shape-shifting versatility.
If that's the only cost, this trade is obviously worth it. You can't make massive long-term decisions based on anxiety about how you might match up during a couple of quarters against one specific postseason opponent. I'm just not convinced this is a painless home run.
That said, Oladipo should shoot better on cleaner looks courtesy of Oklahoma City's world-beaters. His stroke is solid, and he seems to finish every season with a flourish of long-range accuracy.
His departure leaves a void in Orlando and marks the second time in about four months the Magic sloughed away a piece of their young core. Oladipo has been perhaps a mild disappointment, but if you repicked the weak 2013 draft, he'd still go around No. 5. He was the closest thing to a symbol of what Orlando was trying to build: a hardworking, defense-first team of high-IQ gym rats.
It has been tough to suss out much of an identity beyond that, and it gets tougher now. Tobias Harris is gone, for nothing. Oladipo is out in favor of an older player who has looked slower and more ground-bound since a couple of leg injuries. Win-now reaches for Channing Frye, C.J. Watson, Jason Smith and Ben Gordon mostly went bust and gave the impression of a team flailing around in too many directions at once.
This is what happens sometimes when you bottom-out and don't draft a foundational star who defines the direction of your team. You try lots of stuff, and eventually you grow impatient for a playoff appearance. Is this Ibaka's team now? Aaron Gordon's? Elfrid Payton's? Does Payton top out as anything better than a poor man's Ricky Rubio?
The Magic need Ibaka to be awesome -- to rebound better, do more on offense and prove that his 3s-and-rejections skill set, once so coveted without any trimmings, travels well. If he does, extending Ibaka now and paying him through his 30th birthday isn't a bad outcome.
His rim protection should help Vucevic, but the effect might be muted with Ibaka chasing power forwards around the 3-point arc. It will be a minor challenge finding enough minutes for all three of Vucevic, Ibaka and Gordon, even if new coach Frank Vogel remains partial to traditional big lineups.
In theory, the combined shooting of Ibaka and Vucevic should allow the Magic to play Gordon at small forward and perhaps turn him into a pick-and-roll beast who slices hard to the rim. But he seemed to settle in as a power forward, and you can bet the Magic will deliberate shifting Ibaka to center -- and either dealing Vucevic or turning him into their version of Kanter off the bench. (That will be a hard sell to a proud player).
The deal leaves Mario Hezonja as the only true wing under contract. He did not look NBA-ready for much of last season, and suddenly he could have a ton of responsibility. Evan Fournier is a restricted free agent, and given how badly the Magic need him now, he should hold out for a max contract. If the Magic don't give him one, some rival team with money leftover in the middle of free agency should toss Fournier a max offer sheet just to force the Magic into matching it.
That will probably be the final step in Orlando's makeover. Fournier's cap hold is a paltry $5.7 million, and as long as that low number remains on the Magic books, they will have about $46 million to spend on free agents. Chandler Parsons and Batum would seem the most obvious targets, but whiff on those, and the pickings at the wing get slim pretty damn fast. If they only sign one high-priced free agent aside from Fournier, the Magic could have max cap space again next summer even with Ibaka onboard.
The Magic paid a steep price for Ibaka -- steeper than bounties that netted Batum, Dragic, Morris and Hill for other teams. They are betting that even in a league trending toward speed and off-the-bounce playmaking across all five positions, a huge dude who can shoot 3s and swat shots is more valuable than other players in the same general tier. If Ibaka doesn't rediscover his vigor, they will lose that bet. Lots of rival executives think they lost it the second they flung the former No. 2 pick away.
Maybe so. They definitely outbid the market for a guy who will hit free agency in a year. But I wouldn't be surprised if Ibaka helps the Magic more than expected. That might not justify the deal in the end, but delivering the verdict early is dangerous.