What's Next? 2016-17 Orlando Magic: Into the Wilderness

By now, NBA season previews are rolling out. Countless basketball sites, podcasts, and television shows are breaking down all 30 teams, projecting how each will fare based on additions and subtractions. I would like to do something different and focus on teams through the fish-eyed lens of their respective most intriguing player or players. I continue with the Orlando Magic.

The theme for most of these players is that they have reached a crossroads unique to their respective careers. Most of them have an aura of the hopeful springtime of youth. But some paths appear wintry and barren.

Media day photos are the best. (Credit: SI.com)
Media day photos are the best. (Credit: SI.com)

Four years ago, Serge Ibaka was an Olympian, NBA Finalist, and a flourishing, energetic power forward with freakish athleticism and defensive timing. He appeared to be an upgrade over Jeff Green and a vital force of rim protection that OKC needed as Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant provided nuclear scoring power. He finished a close second to Tyson Chandler for Defensive Player of the Year. He worked hard on his midrange jumper to be a bigger asset on offense. When James Harden was traded, the Thunder looked to Ibaka to step in as the third scorer.

That didn't quite happen. Ibaka drifted farther and farther away from the paint to the point OKC implemented passing the ball to him behind the three-point line into their offensive sets. This had a negative effect on Ibaka's in-game impact, as his points per game dropped from 14.3 in 2014-15 to 12.6, and his rebounding dipped from 7.8 to 6.8 in that same span. This summer, OKC decided to part ways with the former Serge Protector, trading him to Orlando for neophyte nova Victor Oladipo.

Serge Ibaka holds up his Magic jersey. (Credit: SI.com)
Serge Ibaka holds up his Magic jersey. (Credit: SI.com)

Sports careers carry the spiritual ideal of destination with them. Some make it to and through the Pearly Gates. Others are doomed to the Underworld. But there lies a Purgatory between those extremes, where a lot of players' tenures are spent as borderline afterthoughts. They live out their careers as solid pieces of various team rotations, but never amounting to individual greatness or labeled as busts.

There are a few recognizable players who experience career limbo -- when he's neither traded to a contender or dumped for salary cap relief. He just exists in the NBA, on a team building bridges to Nowhere In Particular. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," doesn't quite apply here for Orlando. Something isn't right, but the exact problem hasn't been discovered, so temporary remedies are used in the meantime. That's right. Serge Ibaka is something like stop leak for a faulty radiator. Hopefully, what's next for him is better than just playing out his days on average teams.

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