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A Durant-Led Thunder May Be Better Without Ibaka

One more piece of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2012 NBA Finals run was cast to the wind during Thursday night’s draft. The Thunder dealt Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to No. 11 overall pick Domantas Sabonis. For those of us who look back fondly on the 2012 Thunder’s killer Big Four of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Ibaka, it was a reminder of how OKC broke up one of the great what-might-have-been young cores in NBA history.

But putting aside one of the internet’s favorite pastimes of 2015 — second-guessing the Harden trade — the truth of the matter is that the roster the Thunder sent to the 2016 Western Conference finals had already surpassed the edition that went to the NBA Finals four years earlier, at least according to advanced metrics such as our Box Plus/Minus talent ratings:1

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And a big reason why was the emergence of Steven Adams, who was selected with one of the picks that came to OKC in return for Harden and has become an excellent defender and rebounder. Adams’s strong play made Ibaka expendable, but so had Ibaka’s own downturn over the past couple years. And although comparing shooting guards and stretch fours is a bit apples-to-oranges, Oladipo posted better numbers than Ibaka last season, at a younger age, for less than half the money. As currently constructed, the Thunder are better off now than they were a day ago.

Of course, none of that matters if Durant doesn’t opt to re-sign with Oklahoma City in free agency. Despite a bit of a down playoff campaign — and the fact that he probably isn’t even OKC’s best player anymore — KD is still one of the top handful of players in the NBA, and it will be his decision that determines the Thunder’s future far more than Sam Presti’s draft-day machinations.

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If Durant does re-up with Oklahoma City, the addition of Oladipo would edge the Thunder ever closer to the Warriors and Spurs at the top of the West. If not, they’ll be just another mid-level team in one of the most top-heavy conferences ever.

Footnotes

  1. Essentially a lo-fi version of ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus ratings, with the benefit that they can be computed for historical seasons. We’ve used them a few times in the past.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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