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Orlando Magic forward Ersan Ilyasova (7) grabs a rebound over Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside, left, and guard Josh Richardson, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Orlando, Fla., Friday, April 8, 2016. The Magic won 112-109. (AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr.)

Don’t underestimate Ersan Ilyasova’s importance to the Thunder

AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr.

As the Oklahoma City Thunder dealt away Serge Ibaka on draft night, everyone was rightfully surprised. Basketball fans glued to their constantly-refreshing Twitter timelines were eagerly awaiting the news of a move, be it the Boston Celtics trading the third overall pick or the Minnesota Timberwolves landing Jimmy Butler. The rumors were endless, the draft night hot takes were heating up. But nothing happened.

That is until the Thunder traded one of the long lasting foundations of Kevin Durant’s era in Oklahoma City. After seven years with OKC, serving as the team’s lead rim protector and three-time All-Defensive First Team star from 2012 to 2014, Ibaka was suddenly gone.

It’s a heavy loss, and there’s no doubt the Thunder will miss him. Just as vital as his shot blocking, despite its slight regression over the last couple of years, is his defensive versatility. He can smother opponents in the post and comfortably switch to the perimeter as well, which will be missed even more now that Durant’s length is gone, too.

However, Ibaka’s departure soon mattered a little less when considering the haul the Thunder claimed in return for him.

Victor Oladipo would have been an intriguing offer almost by himself, but he came with the No. 11 overall pick (used on Domantas Sabonis) and Ersan Ilyasova.

What’s important to emphasize, though, is that as great as that return may be for Ibaka heading into the final year of his contract, Ilyasova’s arrival in Oklahoma City is far more significant than he seems to have gotten credit for.

There’s more than Sabonis’ energy and potential and Oladipo’s budding explosiveness alongside an angry Russell Westbrook to consider here.

Ilyasova can’t replace Ibaka’s defense. That’s never been his role at any point of his eight-year NBA career, averaging a career-high one block per 36 minutes in 2011-12 with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Ibaka’s career-high of 4.8 per 36 in 2011-12, or even his 2.1 last season, indicate how drastic the drop-off is. However, what Ilyasova can do is fill in as the three-point threat the Thunder desperately need at power forward now.

No Kevin Durant means the Thunder lose a lot of things. His crazy seven-footer handles, his 28.2 points per game, his never-before-seen combination of shooting and fluidity for a man of his size. There’s a lot to move forward without. But his ability to play at power forward so terrifically is something else the Thunder will miss.

With his size,  7’4″ wingspan, shooting and rim protection, Durant has a combination of skills and attributes that are unprecedented in a 4. And even though Ilyasova can’t come close to replicating any of Durant’s scoring talent or defensive ability, he will be needed to space the floor.

Enes Kanter was the only other at power forward before OKC took me by surprise and traded for Joffrey Lauvergne, but it still makes more sense for Thunder head coach Billy Donovan to start someone next to center Steven Adams who can space the floor.

Enter Ilyasova.

Despite Kanter hitting 10 threes last season and making an impact from 20 feet occasionally, he still only shot 36.5 percent from between 16 feet and the arc, with 62 percent of his shot attempts coming within three feet.

Lauvergne wasn’t much better from three, hitting 13 for the season at a 24.5 percent rate. And even though he showed his stroke from 16 feet to the arc, making an impressive 50.8 percent of such shots, he can’t be a threat from three like Ilyasova.

Without the talent to edge him over Kanter in the rotation, Lauvergne simply offers extra size, depth, and the threat of taking some minutes from Ilyasova.

First and foremost, Kanter is an option in the post, an elite offensive rebounder, and a pick-and-roll option, which doesn’t bode well for preventing opponents from clogging the paint far more frequently against a Kanter-Adams frontcourt.

Yes, that duo worked well together at times last season with their ability to go anti small-ball and destroy opponents on the glass with their size. Also, thanks to their physical play against the Warriors in the playoffs, the five-man lineup of Westbrook, Dion Waiters, Durant, Kanter and Adams earned a +25.7 net rating (albeit in only 33 minutes, per Basketball Reference).

The two bigs can work well, but in more controlled bursts, not at an even higher frequency after losing Durant and Ibaka. While Adams continues to impress with his surprising agility and the capability of switching outside, Kanter is far from being agile enough to defend quicker, smaller fours at the perimeter. That’s another reason why he only spent seven percent of his regular season minutes at power forward.


With the loss of Durant’s historic shooting stroke and Ibaka’s three-point/mid-range game (his three-point percentage dropped, but he shot 45.3 percent from 16 feet to the arc as a reliable pick-and-pop option), Ilyasova is needed even more.

As a 37 percent three-point shooter over the course of his career, Ilyasova has shown his range off for eight years in the NBA. Last season, spending time with the Detroit Pistons before being traded to the Magic in the February Tobias Harris deal, Ilyasova hit 37.1 percent of his threes and 40.9 in a 22-game stint in Orlando. And with an average of 1.8 per 36 minutes for the season, there’s respectable quantity there for someone who’s never been a heavy offensive contributor. Behind a ferociously motivated Westbrook and his new running mate Oladipo, that will still be the case.

Ilyasova’s mid-range numbers aren’t too pretty. Last season, he only shot 36.8 percent from 16 feet out and a reasonable 39.4 percent between 10-16 feet. By comparison, Ibaka hit 45.3 and 48.6 percent of his shots from those ranges respectively, as a kick out option on drives or as a pick-and-pop target.

However, the year before, Ilyasova shot 49.1 percent from 16 feet. With so much attention on others in OKC, he has the touch and off-ball movement to be effective.

It’s strange to think of the Thunder as a weak shooting team when they had Durant at their disposal. Yet, when considering the rest of the roster, they only ranked 17th in threes made per game (8.3) last season. Durant accounted for 2.6 (31.3 percent) of those, maintaining dangerous perimeter presence to prevent defenses collapsing around Westbrook’s attacks when the likes of Andre Roberson are on the floor and damaging OKC’s spacing.

No matter what Oladipo can provide as a scorer, everyone knows Westbrook’s usage rate is going to be through the roof next season. During Durant’s injured 2014-15 season, Westbrook hit a career-high 38.4. Expect something similar next season.

He’s the sole leader of the franchise now, who will use his buzzing explosiveness more than ever while continuing his tremendous assist percentage of 49.6 as he controls the ball even more.

When he looks to facilitate, though, taking a frenzied quarterback role and getting others involved, he needs players to kick the ball to. He needs shooters to support him.

With no Durant or Ibaka, or even Waiters Island, he’ll need someone like Ilyasova, who’s fairly nimble at 6’10” and moves well to find space off the ball.

Obviously, he’s a downgrade from Ibaka, lacking that level of mid-range shooting, athletic rim rolling, and defense. But, as the logical starting power forward with three-point shooting that the Thunder desperately need after the hit they’ve taken to their forward rotation, Ersan Ilyasova is ready to make a real impact.

Don’t underestimate Ersan Ilyasova’s importance to the Thunder

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