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NBA PM: Serge Ibaka Bounce Back Coming In 2016-17?

Serge Ibaka’s productivity has been declining. Was it due to the system in OKC and will he bounce back in Orlando?

Lang Greene

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The NBA is absolutely overflowing with talent at the top level. The easiest way to fact check this notion, year after year, is to take a stroll down the list of talented guys in the league who, despite strong productivity, have never made it to the All-Star game.

Guys like Josh Smith, Rudy Gay, Monta Ellis, Mike Conley, Gordon Hayward, Al Jefferson, Jamal Crawford, DeAndre Jordan and Serge Ibaka immediately come to mind. All of these players at varying points in their respective careers had a case to be made to play among the league’s elite.

In regards to Ibaka, flashback to the end of the 2013-14 campaign and it would be hard to envision a scenario where an All-Star berth wouldn’t be in the near future for the talented forward. Ibaka was coming off a campaign in which he averaged 15.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game on 54 percent shooting.

But in the two seasons since, Ibaka has mostly faded from mainstream attention and the Oklahoma City Thunder shipped the veteran to the Orlando Magic earlier this summer in exchange for Ersan Ilyasova, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.

Ibaka gets a fresh start in Orlando as his own unrestricted free agency looms next summer, and it’s clear the Magic have reopened their wallet in order to win quickly. This summer, the Magic handed out a total of $197 million in guaranteed money in free agency to Evan Fournier, D.J. Augustin, Jeff Green and Bismack Biyombo. And this doesn’t include Orlando absorbing Ibaka’s $12 million salary for the 2016-17 campaign.

The message is simple. Orlando wants to get back into the playoff hunt sooner rather than later and for that to happen, Ibaka will need to put together a strong bounce back campaign.

But is it possible? Well, from an enthusiasm standpoint, Ibaka is taking the move to another zip code in perfect stride.

“It feels great, man. In my mind, this almost feels like my first rookie year,” Ibaka reportedly told Complex Sports. “I’m fresh and sometimes change is just good for you. I’m excited, been working out really hard for the upcoming season. We have a young team with a bright future and I want to bring what I learned the seven years in Oklahoma City and make the team better. I’m very excited. I know it’s going to be very fun being with those guys.”

However, the numbers on the floor seemingly speak of a trend headed in the other direction completely – a direction of noticeable decline.

Points Per Game
Ibaka’s point production has declined the past two seasons … Per 36 averages in parentheses for additional perspective

2013-14: 15.1 (16.6)
2014-15: 14.3 (15.6)
2015-16: 12.6 (14.2)

Rebounds Per Game
Ibaka’s rebound production has declined the past two seasons … Per 36 averages in parentheses for additional perspective

2013-14: 8.8 (9.6)
2014-15: 7.8 (8.5)
2015-16: 6.8 (7.7)

Blocks Per Game
Ibaka was once known as one of the fiercest weak-side rim protectors in the game and while the production is still there, there has been a noticeable decline since the 2011-12 campaign … Per 36 averages in parentheses for additional perspective

2011-12: 3.7 (4.8)
2012-13:
3.0 (3.5)
2013-14: 2.7 (3.0)
2014-15: 2.4 (2.6)
2015-16: 1.9 (2.1)

Field Goal Percentage
Ibaka’s field goal percentage has dipped from close to 60 percent in 2013 to under 50 percent the past two seasons. To be fair, Ibaka attempted just 63 total three-point attempts his first four seasons in the league. Over the past three seasons, Ibaka has hoisted 449 three-point attempts.

2012-13: 57.3 percent
2013-14:
53.6 percent
2014-15: 47.6 percent
2015-16: 47.9 percent

Ibaka, 26, is young enough to bounce back and most of the production declines, namely rebounding and blocked shots, can be attributed to him floating away from the basket more and more in order to establish the perimeter game.  Playing alongside Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, two elite slashers, created plenty of open perimeter shots in Oklahoma City’s offense and the Thunder developed Ibaka into a similar role as the Miami HEAT did with Chris Bosh (during the LeBron James and Dwyane Wade years).

Further evidence of this, from a rebounding perspective, can be seen in Ibaka’s steady defensive rebounding percentages over the past four seasons.

Defensive Rebounding Percentage
(estimate of the percentage of available defensive rebounds Ibaka grabbed while on the court)

2012-13: 17.0 percent
2013-14: 19.6 percent
2014-15: 18.1 percent
2015-16: 16.2 percent

Now compare this to the steep decline in Offensive Rebounding Percentage during the same time period. The increase in Ibaka’s presence on the perimeter undoubtedly led to missed opportunities for offensive rebounds.

Offensive Rebounding Percentage
(estimate of the percentage of available offensive rebounds Ibaka grabbed while on the court)

2012-13: 11.1 percent
2013-14: 10.0 percent
2014-15:  7.0  percent
2015-16:  6.5  percent

Heading into the 2016-17 campaign, Ibaka is one of the most intriguing players in the league. Did he grow stagnant in Oklahoma City’s system and become a victim of a role change? Or is his decline an indication of things to come as he approaches free agency and a potentially very lucrative payday next summer?

Orlando is hoping a change of scenery does the magic trick.

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls

Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.

James Blancarte

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The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.

LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.

“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”

The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.

So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.

In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.

At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.

LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.

“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”

LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.

“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”

In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.

Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.

Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.

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NBA Daily: Lopez’s Enjoys “Old Guy” Role on Young Team

Robin Lopez is the old man on a very young Chicago Bulls team, but he says the camaraderie is a big reason why he’s happy there, and why the team is overachieving so much this year.

Joel Brigham

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When the Chicago Bulls started the season 3-20, nobody was surprised that they stunk. Everything was fine. They were supposed to stink. That was the entire reason they traded away Jimmy Butler for younger players in the first place. They wanted got their rebuild underway in earnest. (more…)

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