NBA PM: Magic Counting On Serge Ibaka

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For much of his career, Serge Ibaka has played behind superstars like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and even James Harden with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was never counted on to be one of the team’s top scoring options. The highest he’d ever finish in scoring among Thunder players during his seven seasons in Oklahoma City was third, which was three seasons ago behind Durant and Westbrook.

That could potentially all change during Ibaka’s first season with the Orlando Magic. It seems a bit premature to determine who will ultimately lead the Magic in scoring in 2016-17, but it’s something worth exploring when looking at this roster.

The Magic were very aggressive this offseason, with defense becoming a top priority. Ibaka was acquired in a draft-night trade that sent Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to Domantas Sabonis to the Thunder. Orlando was seeking a defensive-minded veteran and got exactly that with Ibaka.

The team also signed free agent Bismack Biyombo to a four-year, $72 million contract. With Ibaka and Biyombo now on the roster, the team felt those two players mixed in with capable defenders like Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and others could help the team make a huge leap. New Magic head coach Frank Vogel established himself as one of the best defensive head coaches in the league during his time with the Indiana Pacers, and the team feels like they can become one of the top defensive units in the league given their roster.

While the defense looks like it will take a big step forward this season, a lot of questions exist regarding how the offense will come together. The team still doesn’t have a go-to scorer it can count on in crunch time to take over games. Center Nikola Vucevic led the team in scoring last season with 18.2 points per game. With Oladipo now gone, the next highest scorer remaining on the roster was Evan Fournier at 15.4 points per game – while Payton was next down the list with 10.7 points per game.

Fournier seems like the logical answer to become the team’s go-to guy down the stretch of games. He figures to have an even bigger role this season with the departure of Oladipo and he’s the best option on the team to create his own shot and drive to the rim. He’s also one of the team’s best shooters.

Newly signed forward Jeff Green has shown he can provide a scoring punch as well throughout his career, but he hasn’t necessarily been a top option before (aside from a season with the Boston Celtics) and he’s had issues with consistency. Aaron Gordon has seemingly all of the potential in the world, but still has to prove himself as a scorer.

Despite the concerns on the offensive end, Coach Vogel doesn’t seem to be losing sleep over the idea of not knowing who his top scorer will be. He’s coached successful Pacers teams without a high-scoring offensive unit and believes he can duplicate that in Orlando.

“The go-to guy is going to be the open man,” Vogel said at Media Day. “We’re going to be a selfless team, a sharing-the-basketball team, a play-for-each-other team and a [pass-]first team. We’re going to ask all of those things from our players.

“We’re going to try to work hard on the offensive end by committing to the running game. Obviously, we have a lot of defensive talent and we’ll go from there, and it’s going to carry us on the floor and hopefully [we] play a very entertaining style of offense.”

The Magic acquired Ibaka to provide some much-needed interior defense. Ibaka has been a member of three All-Defensive First Teams and has led the league in total blocks four times. He averaged 1.9 blocks per game last season, which ranked seventh in the NBA, and his 148 total blocks were third-most.

While he’s proven himself defensively, could Ibaka also provide the team with another offensive weapon as well? He averaged 15.1 points per game during the 2013-14 season and was the Thunder’s third scoring option that year.

“It’s exciting because sometimes change is good,” Ibaka said. “I think this change is good for me. [We have a] new team and we got a new coach, too, so perfect timing for me. I’m sure we’re going to have a new system, so I’m not going to be like the only one here [that is new to the system].

“[There are] nice guys here and young players for the future. I used to be the team where we were dreaming to make the playoffs and we did it a lot of years in a row and we did it. This one is a new one too so it’s going to give me new energy [and] a fresh mind.”

Much has been made about Ibaka’s scoring numbers dipping to 12.6 points per game last season, but that seems to be a bit overstated. The Thunder utilized big men like Enes Kanter and Steven Adams more last year, which created fewer opportunities for Ibaka. He provides the Magic with some floor spacing as a career 35.5 percent three-point shooter.

With so many questions lingering about the offense, Ibaka may be counted on to handle a much bigger role than he has in recent years. He was a member of some very successful teams in Oklahoma City and the Magic will be counting on him to help lead the younger players that have yet to taste the success that he has throughout his career.

“I’m just going to show them how it’s supposed to be done,” Ibaka said. “Sometimes it’s not only to talk, but to do it so they can follow. I’ve been there before and I know so I’m going to [bring that] to the table so we can do it together.”

“I think Serge is going to be great for us,” current Magic point guard (and former Thunder teammate) D.J. Augustin said. “He’s a great leader; a lot of people don’t know about him. He’s a hard worker, so he will improve on the court.”

The timing may be perfect for Ibaka to take on a bigger role. He’s set to enter the last year of his contract and he’ll become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Many were critical of the Magic acquiring Ibaka because they may have given up too many assets for a player who could ultimately sign elsewhere in free agency. But with Ibaka surely looking to prove himself in a contract year, the Magic will likely get a very productive player this season. The team seems to be going with a committee approach in scoring this year and will be looking for everyone to step up and contribute as much as they can offensively.

In a modern NBA in which teams are typically looking to create as much offense as possible, Vogel and the Magic will need to find ways to get as many offensive possessions as they can. They ranked 21st in the league in offensive efficiency last season, scoring 102.6 points per 100 possessions. The team has seven new players they will need to integrate into the rotation and get acclimated. They have been running open gyms in recent weeks to try to get a head start. Despite the concerns from the outside, the players on the team seem excited about the recent roster moves.

“It was exciting when you have [added] veterans that went deep into the playoffs,” Fournier said. “Serge went to the Finals. Bismack had a hell of a run with Toronto. I mean, it’s exciting. You need guys that went through those steps because that is where we want to go.”