The Oklahoma City Thunder only have one more season of enjoying the magnificent quartet of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka before the final two members become restricted free agents.
OKC is caught between a rock and a hard place here. A bad season from either Harden or Ibaka would hinder the championship hopes, while good seasons from both would lead to max contracts.
If each receives a max offer sheet, the Thunder are going to have to choose which one to keep. The smart decision would be to retain Ibaka and let Harden pick his new destination.
Harden is already thinking along similar lines, as he revealed to The Republic's Dan Bickley:
Former Arizona State star James Harden would consider signing with the Suns if his contract expires after next season.
"Yeah," he said. "Of course. I love it there. My mom lives there still. So that's definitely my second home as far as my comfort level and going to school there. But obviously, I'm with the Thunder right now and what we have is special."
This is much better news than if Ibaka had come out and said the same thing. Both players are quite valuable to the Thunder's championship efforts, but Ibaka brings a bit more value.
The bearded lefty does wonders for the Oklahoma City's fanbase. He's incredibly popular, and fake beards run rampant when the team is in town. On the court, he's important as well.
Harden, the NBA's reigning Sixth Man of the Year, is an offensive explosion waiting to happen. He's incredible at drawing contact and getting to the charity stripe, thanks to his shiftiness and explosiveness.
With his Eurostep and touch from the outside, Harden can score in a variety of ways. Right now, he's significantly better than Serge Ibaka is.
However, that doesn't mean that he's the player who should be retained.
Even though quality shooting guards aren't exactly common in the current NBA landscape, Ibaka's skill-set is more valuable because it's a more unique blend of quality attributes. How many power forwards in the NBA can contend for the league lead in block shots and run the pick-and-pop for a successful two points with a consistent mid-range jumper?
The answer is pretty small: just one.
Now, how many of those players are still only 22?
Well, that's a stupid question, because the answer is obviously still just one. But you get my point.
Serge is one of the league's most unique players, and he's only going to get better as he develops a reliable post game. The Thunder's one weakness is reliable scoring on the blocks, and you can bet that Ibaka is working on that as you read this.
Between Westbrook and Durant, the Thunder have plenty of scoring from the perimeter and plenty of slashing ability. Harden is just more of a luxury than a necessity right now.
Ibaka is a necessity if this team is going to continue to compete.