In the infamous trade that sent James Harden to Houston, the Oklahoma City Thunder essentially made a difficult choice one year earlier than they had to. They were worried about having to pay James Harden and elected to make Serge Ibaka their third foundational player.
That era ended Thursday night.
The Thunder made a shocking trade, sending Ibaka to Orlando for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the No. 11 pick, Domantas Sabonis.
I still don’t understand it.
I can only kind of see what the Thunder are thinking by making this trade. I don’t think it makes them better next season or improves their chances of winning an NBA title.
Granted, Ibaka had a terrible year last year. His defense regressed, he failed to rebound as well and spent most of his time on the perimeter shooting long twos or threes. He only has one year left on his contract and was reportedly unhappy with his role.
Oladipo is a dynamic two-way guard who, while a bit undersized, plays his tail off. He will allow the Thunder to play three good perimeter defenders in a league that is getting smaller and smaller all the time.
But going small and remaining strong defensively requires athletic big men who can protect the rim and rebound well enough to cover for smaller defenders. Ibaka is the exactly the kind of forward you want for small ball.
For that reason, I don’t think this trade moves the Thunder closer to an NBA championship. The reason the Thunder gave the Spurs and Warriors so much trouble, the reason they were four minutes from going to the Finals, was their overwhelming athleticism. Lineups with Ibaka at center and Kevin Durant at the 4 ran right past the aging Spurs and swarmed the Warriors.
Ibaka is more capable of switching a pick-and-roll on defense than almost every other big in the league. He also provides great spacing on offense. This will hurt the Thunder on both sides.
Oldadipo does allow the Thunder to shift Andre Roberson to the four in crunch time. That’s nice, I suppose, but it means the Thunder won’t be able to reach the same level they did in this year’s playoffs. Oladipo isn’t going to be able to guard Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard and playing Roberson will produce the same spacing constraints as it always has, but without Ibaka’s shooting to mitigate them.
Maybe Ibaka really did want out. He was underutilized and the Thunder’s inability to construct anything creative on offense probably made him regress.
But winning cures all. Why not just run it back and see if the Thunder can find those last four minutes and make a return to the Finals?
The Thunder, as they did with James Harden, have given up on a core player a year too early.