Dec 23, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka (7) reacts and celebrates against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 109-90. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
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There is no arguing how valuable Serge Ibaka’s offensive production has been so far this season. But the Magic need to make a move. And Ibaka must be on the table.
The Orlando Magic have two goals right now: First, make the playoffs in 2017. It has been too long since the franchise’s last berth, and general manager Rob Hennigan might be on the hot seat. Second, and more importantly, they want to build a championship-caliber roster in the long term.
Ideally, those two goals should not be mutually exclusive.
Every owner, every general manager and every franchise would love to put a high-quality product on the court every season while continuing to expand that success until it reaches the highest possible level. No one wants to bottom out if they can help it. And very few team officials can afford to do so, even if it is in the name of one day winning a championship a few years down the line.
But more often than not, the reality for most small-market teams is that building a championship-caliber team and maintaining a reasonable level of success without bottoming out are mutually exclusive. If a franchise does not naturally attract marquee free agents, it is a lot harder to build without multiple high draft picks.
There are, of course, plenty of exceptions to this rule.
Some would argue that just because a team never won a title does not mean it was a failure – the current core of the Memphis Grizzlies has been a perennial playoff contender, forming a distinct identity of “Grit and Grind” that resonates with fans without necessarily ever being a favorable pick to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. It is tough to argue Memphis in the past few years has been anything but highly successful.
The problem with the Magic, on the other hand, is three-fold.
In the short term, it does not appear the team is on track for a playoff berth in 2017 — Orlando is four games out of the final Playoff spot. Second, this team is definitely not a championship contender, and it does not appear to have the upside to become one without significant changes. Finally, roster turnover has denied any recent Magic team from form a unifying identity that fans can stand behind, win or lose.
It is clear the Magic must make some trades and reshape the roster to achieve any of these goals. That will lead to some difficult decisions. Perhaps with some of the biggest names on the Magic roster.
If Orlando is going to achieve any of these three goals and begin reforming their franchise. It must start at the top and perhaps making a big sacrifice.
Perhaps, the first major step in reaching any of these three goals would be to trade Serge Ibaka at this year’s trade deadline.
Dec 23, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Jeff Green (34) and Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka (7) defend Los Angeles Lakers center Timofey Mozgov (20) shot during the second half at Amway Center.Orlando Magic defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 109-90. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Why the Magic need to make a trade
It is obvious the Magic need to make some kind of move. This team is clearly not on a playoff trajectory despite the front office’s decision to make a push for a berth this past offseason.
A team disproportionately invested in declining veterans, journeymen and former bench players rather than in blossoming young talent is not poised for consistent success, much less upside.
Without any changes, this roster will only look worse over time as these players age and younger players decide they would rather play somewhere that will give them consistent opportunities.
The Magic need to make a big splash before the trade deadline if they want to make these coming playoffs, or if they want to start recouping the assets they sacrificed over the past few seasons to restart its push for consistent success and/or championship contention.
Failing to accomplish either of those would mean failing to move toward either immediate or sustainable success. The Magic would be stuck in the middle, trying to fight for Playoff scraps, but having no way to really compete.
If the team does not want to lock itself into these aging, declining veterans, the only alternative to making a significant trade would be letting the team’s incumbent free agents (Ibaka, Jeff Green, Jodie Meeks, C.J. Wilcox and C.J. Watson) walk and signing new ones.
Moving in that direction probably would not be enough as Orlando has not yet proven itself to be an attractive destination for big names, and failing to net an upper-echelon free agent would leave the team almost bereft of the value it had accumulated in the past few seasons.
Relying on free agency to build a team is always a major risk, especially for smaller market teams. Letting these free agents walk is not a risk the Magic can afford at this point. They need to ensure they get something back in return.
Nov 19, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka (7) drives into and fouls Dallas Mavericks guard Wesley Matthews (23) during the second half of an NBA basketball game at Amway Center. The Magic won 95-87. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Why it needs to be Ibaka
The argument for trading away Serge Ibaka has nothing to do with how valuable he has been to the team thus far. He has arguably been the team’s MVP, at least offensively.
The unfortunate reality is it does not appear to be enough to get the Magic into the Playoffs. The Magic need a difference-making move. And difference-making moves require teams to make sacrifices.
Ibaka is on a contract that will expire at the end of the year. Sure, he could re-sign. But there is at least an equally good chance that he will not. And if he does not, the Magic will have lost a ton of assets for absolutely nothing in return. That risk is simply not a luxury Orlando can afford.
Not to mention, Ibaka is the Magic’s most valuable AND most tradeable piece.
Despite his invaluable contributions on offense, his athleticism has steeply declined in the past few seasons. He cannot block shots, defend guards or defend in the post like he used to. His inability to switch onto guards, along with Bismack Biyombo, has been a major point of weakness in the Magic’s defense.
It’s only a matter of time before this declining athleticism seeps into his offense too. Based on these patterns, locking into his future would not be a smart plan.
The bottom line is even if he is not traded, Ibaka should not be in a Magic uniform next year. He probably will not be anyways. Ibaka’s expiring contract makes him very tradeable. And his status as an established veteran puts him in relatively high demand for teams looking for help right now.
As a trade piece, he would likely net more in return than any other individual player on the Magic. And that will make the Magic significantly better in the long-term future.
Keeping him is a much greater risk than trading him would be. It just makes sense.
Whether an Ibaka trade nets multiple future assets or one player who can help the team now, it would be a step in the right direction.
Whether the team wants simply to recalibrate the current roster to double down on a 2017 playoff push, or to get younger and set sights on the future, Ibaka would certainly set a nice return to start the Magic on that path.