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James Harden or Serge Ibaka: Who Stays and Who Goes?

Daniel SzewczykCorrespondent IJune 27, 2012

Ladies and gentleman, I have breaking news: The Oklahoma City Thunder are good!

In fact, they are very good. It's even possible that they're maybe too good!

Confused? Don't be! I'll explain.

The Thunder have done such a good job drafting players and building a solid core, almost from scratch, that they have too many good players on their team and not enough money to pay them all.

Sure, they will be returning basically the same roster next season that they had this season when they reached the NBA Finals, however, after next season is over, they will face a big dilemma.

Unless you're not a fan of the NBA at all, you are aware of the fact that James Harden and Serge Ibaka are both rising stars in the NBA, and at the very young age of 23 (they are both 22 now, so they will both be 23 at the end of the next season), they will both likely be worth maximum contracts.

Even if you don't believe that they will be worth maximum contracts (I have my doubts, as good as they both are), the fact of the matter is that there will be multiple teams who offer both of them maximum contracts.

This is actually fairly familiar territory for the Thunder. Right before the 2010-11season's trade deadline, the Thunder faced a similar situation with a young player by the name of Jeff Green.

A good all-around player, Green was set to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Management had to decide whether they were going to pay the man or let him walk.

They decided to choose option C, as they traded him away and picked up a solid piece for their future in Kendrick Perkins, who was worth less than Green potentially could have been. This deal turned out to be an absolute robbery, as Perkins helped lead the Thunder to the NBA Finals while Green missed the entire 2011-12 season due to heart complications.

The situation the Thunder face following the conclusion of the 2012-13 season is a true testament to how good their management team has been. Not only were they in this situation just last year—they face the same situation with two players next year.

What a good problem to have, though!

Although they chose not to keep Green last season and pay him a nice chunk of change, I don't think they will do the same with Harden and Ibaka—at least not with both of them.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure they would love to keep both players, but with the luxury tax kicking in, I don't see any way any owner would be willing to pay four maximum salaries (Kevin Durant is currently signed to a maximum contract and Russell Westbrook's maximum extension kicks in at the start of the 2012-13 NBA season).

Isn't it ironic how a system that was supposed to help out small market teams is actually hurting this small market team?

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JUNE 14:  James Harden #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder calls out in the first half with the ball against the Miami Heat in Game Two of the 2012 NBA Finals at Chesapeake Energy Arena on June 14, 2012 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

But what can they do? At the end of the day, the system is the way it is!

So let's take a more in-depth look at both players and I'll let you decide which one is most deserving of an extension from the Thunder.

During the 2011-12 regular season, James Harden averaged 16.8 points per game on .491 percent shooting from the field, .390 percent shooting from behind the three-point line and .850 shooting from the free-throw line.

He added 4.1 rebounds per game, 3.7 assists per game and one steal per game while playing 31.4 minutes per game.

In a nutshell, regardless of how much he struggled in the 2012 NBA Finals, Harden is a very efficient scorer. He shoots the ball great and drives to the hoop well, yet still is considered an unselfish player.

Barring any injuries or setbacks, he is a star in the making.

On the other hand, Serge Ibaka averaged 9.1 points per game on .535 shooting percentage from the field during the 2011-12 regular season.

Although his scoring may be described as mediocre, his defense is what will earn him an expensive contract. He averaged 7.5 rebounds per game and a league leading 3.65 blocks per game. He finished second in voting for the Defensive Player of the Year Award and earned himself a spot on the NBA All-Defensive First Team.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JUNE 14:  Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat go after a loose ball in the second quarter in Game Two of the 2012 NBA Finals at Chesapeake Energy Arena on June 14, 2012 in Oklahoma City, Okla
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Ibaka obviously is an amazing shot-blocker who also rebounds the ball well, is extremely athletic and possess a nice mid-range jumper.

So the Thunder's two choices are either an offensive superstar in the making or one of the best defensive players in the league!

Like I said previously, not a bad problem to have!

My belief is that the Thunder will take the offensive route and choose to keep Harden, as an efficient scorer is harder to come across in the league than an excellent defender. Even though the Thunder already have two excellent scorers in Durant and Westbrook, a team can never have too many efficient scorers. 

That statement is not an attempt to downgrade the importance of defense; however, Ibaka's role on this team will be easier to replace than Harden's.

We have no choice but to be patient and wait to see what the Thunder will actually do! One thing is for sure: both players still have another year to make the case for why they deserve contract extensions.

Will the Thunder keep one, none or both of the players? If your answer is only one of these players, than which one and why him?

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