Four years ago, the Thunder chose a big over a guard. It’s a decision that has haunted them ever since. This is their chance to undo that mistake.
Victor Oladipo is not as talented as James Harden was in 2012, but there are several key similarities that make this trade viable for the Thunder. Both thrived off of the bench early in their careers, likely because they weren’t particularly high recruits who spent multiple years in college. Both can function as point guards while nominally playing shooting guard, a necessity when Russell Westbrook flies off of the rails and starts playing like the Incredible Hulk in a contract year. Oladipo is a far better defender and Harden can shoot three’s, but overall their functions on the team and raw skill sets are fairly similar.
It’s just more important for this specific roster to have a guard like Oladipo or Harden than it is for them to have a power forward like Ibaka. By the playoffs, Ibaka had in fact become rather redundant.
His shot-blocking is nice, but unless you block shots at the level of Hassan Whiteside or Rudy Gobert it’s more important nowadays to be able to switch onto ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll. Ibaka couldn’t do that well enough against Golden State and it’s a big reason they lost the series. His length is far more useful on a team that doesn’t have Kevin Durant, and Steven Adams does just as much overall on the defensive side of the floor. There’s no sense in keeping a power forward around for his defense in a lineup with Adams and Andre Roberson, but Ibaka’s offense isn’t valuable enough either.
His three-point shooting isn’t good enough to scare anyone either. Shooting 35% for a career is nice, but he takes only two or three per game and most of his shots end up as inefficient two’s. He makes a fair amount, but just getting those shots off of the floor improves the Thunder offense. You have to make them at the rates DeMar DeRozan or Dwyane Wade does for them to be viable.
Sliding Ersan Ilyasova into Ibaka’s offensive role balances the team out. He’s a better three-point shooter than Ibaka but he avoids long-two’s like the plague, taking only 17% of his shots last season as two’s beyond 16-feet compared to over 34% for Ibaka. He does more to combat Roberson’s lack of provided spacing, but the Thunder won’t feel compelled to play him in crunch time.
A closing lineup of Westbrook, Durant, Adams, Oladipo and Roberson would be nearly perfect defensively by modern standards. All five are long and can switch relentlessly. If they want more shooting, they can easily slide someone else into Roberson’s slot knowing that they’d still be fine on defense.
But the bigger point to note is that pretty much any closing lineup they choose to use will include only one big man. That’s the change in basketball Sam Presti didn’t see coming in 2012 when he bet his future on the Ibaka-Kendrick Perkins pairing. Last season he had major roster capital invested in three big men, and it forced him to give major crunch time minutes to Dion Waiters. That won’t happen again.
If the Thunder win the championship next season, and right now, I’d say this deal puts them right on par with Golden State, we’ll look back on this trade as the moment they finally got their roster right. The pieces were always there, they just had to be reconfigured a bit to fit the modern game. Assuming Kevin Durant stays, this is the best team the Thunder have had since trading James Harden.