By Brian Schmitz/Orlando Sentinel
Only in the NBA are you trying to persuade a player to stay before he has even joined your team and been issued a parking spot. Crazy, right?
Yet make no mistake about it: The push to keep Serge Ibaka in Orlando past next season officially begins Friday. That’s when the green flag drops on free agency. The Magic now are under increased pressure to find more talent – enough talent to make Ibaka feel like maybe he can win here. Apparently, he got used to that kind of thing in Oklahoma City.
He can become a free agent himself after the 2016-17 season, meaning the recruiting of Serge effectively starts at 12:01am Friday. It’s the knee-knocking, Vegas-worthy gamble the Magic have taken when they acquired Ibaka with a daring draft-night manoeuvre.
Victor Oladipo was the key piece sacrificed in the trade, along with Ersan Ilyasova and the draft rights to Domantas Sabonis.
The Magic gave up contractual control of the popular Oladipo heading into the prime of his career. Many fans want to storm GM Rob Hennigan’s house with torches and pitchforks, so they can’t even imagine digesting a dour double-whammy of losing Oladipo AND Ibaka.
Orlando won’t be formally introduced to Serge Jonas Ibaka Ngobila until his planned presser on Thursday. The Magic don’t really know what makes him tick.Is he the kind of guy who will give the Magic a chance or will he flee to a contender at first light?
Is he driven to take less money elsewhere in order to win more?
Or ... would he take more to win less? That’s a very real scenario facing him in Orlando, considering the still-rebuilding Magic can top any offer now that they own his Bird rights.
The word leaking out of OKC is that Ibaka was unhappy as the third wheel behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Hey, the only other player who wouldn’t be a third wheel there would be LeBron.
Ibaka isn’t a superstar, but he’s already the Magic’s best all-around player. He also starts out as the franchise’s second all-time greatest power forward. Horace Grant similarly brought defense, a mid-range jumper and a winning pedigree as Michael Jordan’s valet. Grant was, of course, the last significant piece to the Shaq-Penny dynamic while Ibaka is the first significant piece to the post-Dwight Howard puzzle.
If taking shots and scoring and feeling appreciated means something to him, well, welcome to paradise, Serge. No team needs him more than the Magic. Let him take the ball home at night. Name a side street after him. Whatever it takes to keep Ibaka off the market.
It’s funny, but this is a case where you want your new star to be all about the money. It would take some of the pressure off having to win, but then we’ve been through enough of that with the Magic.
Ibaka’s arrival and Oladipo’s departure absolutely take this makeover to the next level. The Magic were in a serious hunt for victories last season, managing 35 – a 10-game upgrade over 2014-15. They might have to win another 10 games to reach the postseason for the first time in five years.
Hennigan better go into next season with the idea that making the playoffs is the only way Ibaka stays. The mission has its built-in complications. As it is, the Magic will be under a new coach (Frank Vogel) and will employ at least two new starters (Ibaka and Oladipo’s replacement at shooting guard).
Finding another new starter this summer via free agency or trade – preferably a go-to scorer – would tie up some loose ends. Most notably, delivering help to Ibaka could be the best selling point in the Magic’s recruiting pitch to him, perhaps detouring any thoughts of leaving.
More wins might make Serge resist the urge.
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