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Restoring Balance: How The Ibaka Trade Helps The Bucks

Serge Ibaka was acquired in a deadline deal.

Syndication: Journal Sentinel Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

If you haven’t heard it by now, let me be the first to tell you that the Donte DiVincenzo era has (once again) ended in Milwaukee. The Sacramento Kings got their man, and we wish the Big Ragu well in the next step of his NBA journey. We also wish Rodney Hood and Semi Ojeleye well as they join the Los Angeles Clippers. You guys were...here...and that means...something.

But now let’s look at the Milwaukee Bucks, and what today’s trade means for the postseason.

Going Big With Ibaka

Donte DiVincenzo is 6’4”; Serge Ibaka is 6’10”. That makes all the difference in the world in basketball, since Ibaka’s superior height allows him to fill in where the Bucks are thinnest while DiVincenzo was fighting for minutes at a more crowded position. Milwaukee won the NBA Finals last season in part because of their ability to play bigger lineups and still remain effective; with the addition of Ibaka, Milwaukee has another proven playoff performer placed alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bobby Portis, and (hopefully) Brook Lopez in the front court.

This is the value Donte DiVincenzo was able to provide to the Bucks, whereas on the roster his impact was more limited. Yes, he was a starter on last season’s championship squad (until he got injured), and yes, his ability to “do things” is eminently useful on the basketball court. But he had his flaws, and those flaws made it harder to envision him taking postseason minutes away from his counterparts in the Bucks backcourt. Who should start on this team in the playoffs: Donte or Grayson Allen? Who should come off the bench first in a tough series: Donte or Pat Connaughton? Who do you trust to run the offense when the starters are sitting: Donte or George Hill? Who can you throw on the floor that will have a hope of defending a bigger wing: Donte or Wes Matthews? While DiVincenzo might be a better player overall with higher upside than any of his former teammates, there wasn’t enough clear evidence that his presence on the court maximized the Bucks’ chances in these different scenarios.

This is the tough part about team-building; when you finally hit on a player (DiVincenzo was drafted 17th overall, not a draft slot known for creating guaranteed rotation players), it’s tough to let him go, but Bucks general manager Jon Horst has proven time and time again that he has a knack for knowing when to move on. Like with DJ Augustin and Torrey Craig last year (and Semi and Rodney this year), this usually manifests by moving on from free agent signings that just didn’t work out. But with DiVincenzo, Horst flipped a replaceable player who might not get the call in a playoff rotation with one who has a much higher chance of contributing when it matters. When your championship window is open, that’s the tough call that needs to be made.

Let’s talk about Serge Ibaka for a moment. This is not the same rangy big who made Giannis’ life miserable in the 2019 Eastern Conference Playoffs. Ibaka, 32, is a few years older (take that however you will) and has a significant back surgery in his recent past, so expecting him to have an impact similar to PJ Tucker last year is not the most reasonable. However, Ibaka can still do useful things on the basketball court. He can defend, both at the rim and in space. He can rebound, and he plays with discipline. He can hit shots (0.387 on 4.1 attempts per 36 minutes, his best rate since 2017), and he’s tough. As long as he’s healthy (no guarantee, he’s had three separate stretches this season missing 5 or more games), he clearly has something left in the tank. How much is up for debate, but he’s on an expiring deal (Milwaukee currently holds his Bird rights) and we need to see what he can do for the next 3 months; we can worry about the next 3 years later.

Most importantly in the short-term future, Ibaka provides the Bucks with flexibility. With Bobby Portis used to playing the 5, Ibaka can fill in as a power forward when Giannis sits. Or Ibaka can shift to the 5 when Bobby takes a breather, and Milwaukee can play any of their wings as a small-ball 4. Or he could even start alongside Giannis, spacing the floor as the Greek Freak hammers the defense’s interior. He might be in the expected decline that all bigs go through sooner or later, but it seems to at least be a gentle slope rather than a sharp cliff. Expecting Ibaka to contribute at a high level for 25+ minutes is a bad idea...but for 15 minutes? 20 minutes, once in a while? You can do a lot worse.

Room For Growth

Don’t scoff at second round picks: there’s a lot you can do with them. The Bucks are famously bereft of useful draft capital, and the front office just refilled the coffers with a 2022 pick (either Cleveland or Golden State, whichever is worse) and Sacramento’s 2024 pick (which could end up fairly high in the order, depending on how bad the Kings are). Without an additional deadline move processed today, these picks will now get added to the ammunition available during the NBA Draft and free agency, both events somehow busier than the NBA trade deadline. Who knows, maybe the Bucks will even use them to draft a player? At least now we have options!

More than Ibaka’s contributions on the court and the additional draft capital, this trade also allows Milwaukee to maneuver during the final stage of the annual roster-building process: the buyout market. By trading Donte, Rodney, and Semi in exchange for just Ibaka, the Bucks cleared up two standard roster spots. Depending on what happens with Greg Monroe (currently on a 10-day contract with Milwaukee), this gives the front office the chance to pounce on any veteran who finds himself team-less and is interested in joining a championship contender for the stretch run. No, it doesn’t always work out (see: Williams, Marvin), and usually the quality of player available on the buyout market is not going to tip the title-deciding scales enough to truly matter. But between the prospect of adding a contributor for cheap and keeping those players away from your competition, having spots to offer without requiring a waiver of someone else makes life a lot easier. And this time around, there’s at least one player who’s worth the attention:

Maybe Goran Dragic becomes a Buck (and we all have to deal with our general distaste for his prior antics). Maybe he doesn’t, but at least now Milwaukee is in the hunt for a player of his caliber. Older, yes. Injury-prone, perhaps. But talented and motivated, which in the right circumstance can count for a lot.

This is why flexibility matters. This is why you waive DeMarcus Cousins when you’re not certain he’s going to fit your roster when you would need him the most. This is why you keep your powder dry until the right moment, because you never know what opportunities are going to present themselves. The Milwaukee Bucks are in the midst of their title defense, and today’s trade strengthens the roster for the stretch run and gives them options for the future. You can’t ask for much more when the cupboard is bare. Bravo, Jon Horst, again.