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Why the Oklahoma City Thunder have already won the Serge Ibaka trade

Serge Ibaka
AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski

It’s more complicated than this, but in a way, the Thunder picked Serge Ibaka over James Harden back in 2012.

At the time, not everyone could blame them for it. Who had more unknown potential, room to thrive in OKC’s system and more unique skills? You could make the case back then that Ibaka was the answer to all three of those questions.

Fast forward to today, and we’re in the early stages of seeing how the decision to trade Ibaka is working out for the Thunder. It hasn’t taken long to figure out that the trade was an absolute home run for OKC.

A refresher: On the night of the 2016 NBA Draft, the Thunder traded Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the No. 13 pick in the draft, which turned out to be Domantas Sabonis.

The Thunder couldn’t be happier they made the trade for three main reasons:

Sabonis might be better

Sabonis doesn’t have the raw talent Ibaka does. He has short arms, isn’t as athletic, isn’t going to block as many shots and isn’t going to dunk on you. But he also has plenty Ibaka doesn’t.

Sabonis’ IQ, much of which has to be engrained in his DNA, is on the level of a seasoned veteran already. This is clear in head coach Billy Donovan’s quick decision to start the rookie despite many actual veterans who play the same position being on the roster. And Sabonis has given Donovan no reason to question the decision.

Not only has Sabonis brought a disciplined approach on both ends of the floor, making smart reads on defense and keeping the offensive flow going whenever the ball comes his way, but he’s already developed into a very efficient 3-point shooter. In nine games, he’s made 13 of 25 triples. He probably won’t shoot over 50 percent for the season but he’s already proving to give the Thunder one thing that they desperately need in outside shooting.

Sabonis is just 20-years-old and has plenty of time to grow. No one sees him as potentially the next Dikembe Mutombo as was the case with a young Ibaka, but he might have the tools to develop into an ideal power forward in this evolving NBA landscape.

Oladipo was needed more than anyone knew

Don’t forget, when the Ibaka trade happened, the Thunder were still the favorites to retain Kevin Durant. And when the Thunder got Oladipo, there was some initial thought that he might slide into that 6th man role Dion Waiters would leave vacant.

When KD bolted, Oladipo became more needed than ever.

Mr. Feathery went from being some icing on an OKC cake that was already scoring at an all-time rate to a desperate second option to carry the load when Russell Westbrook went to the bench.

Oladipo has not always been the most efficient scorer, and part of that has been how tough his situation was in Orlando. He’s learning to operate in the Thunder’s system and alongside Westbrook, a player that affords him better opportunities than he’s ever had. In the early stages, Oladipo is showing that he’s going to hit his stride is the near future.

He’s taking a career-high 5.3 threes per game and hitting a career-high 41.7 percent of them. He’s averaging just over 16 points a night and providing the Thunder with something few teams can match in an uber-athletic backcourt with Russ.

The Thunder have needed to find an identity quickly in the post-KD era and Oladipo’s commitment to the team and his development has helped speed up that process.

Ibaka never improved like we thought

This is perhaps the saddest reality of the Ibaka trade and why the Thunder won it so easily. Serge just never developed quite like everyone thought he would.

Ibaka made a decision after the Thunder made it to the 2012 NBA Finals to move farther and farther away from the basket. The league has been demanding this more from NBA big men, but ultimately it may not have been the best move for Ibaka.

Sure, Ibaka’s outside shooting gave the Thunder something few teams could match. He was essential for the Thunder pushing the Warriors like they did in the Western Conference Finals, on both ends of the floor. But we always knew Ibaka had more to give and wasn’t in the best fit in OKC anymore. And Ibaka knew it too.

What we’re finding out quickly in Orlando is just how good Ibaka had it with the Thunder. When Russ and KD are no longer creating those wide-open jumpers for him, offense isn’t coming as easily. In nine games, he’s averaging less points than he did with the Thunder the past four seasons.

Ibaka won’t have to be in Orlando long-term as he will become a free agent next summer. He’s still young enough and possesses a unique variety of skills that there will likely be teams out there wanting to offer him a max contract. He might still be worth it, but not for OKC, not after what they got back from the Magic in that trade.

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