The Oklahoma City Thunder made a strong move toward keeping their young core intact on Saturday, when they reportedly signed Serge Ibaka to a four-year, $48 million contract extension, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.
This was a great move by the Thunder, as they managed to lock up the team's defensive anchor long term, ensuring them the ability to compete with the powerhouse Lakers' frontcourt going forward.
However, the Ibaka signing comes with a not-so-silver lining. Ibaka’s $12 million per year takes a significant chunk out of the Thunder’s cap flexibility, bringing into question the team’s ability to also re-sign sixth man extraordinaire James Harden.
Harden was a key cog in the Thunder’s remarkable run last season, winning Sixth Man of the Year honors while serving as the third-leading scorer for Oklahoma City. Harden came up big countless times throughout the season and into the playoffs, and despite a weak finals performance, there is no doubting Harden’s importance to the Thunder.
Regardless, Harden becomes a restricted free agent next summer, and the Thunder may soon have to decide if they can afford to keep the popular guard. There also exists the chance the decision won’t be theirs to make, as Harden could be lured away from contention by the opportunity to be the go-to guy for a team like Phoenix.
The Thunder feature one of the league’s most dynamic scoring trios in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden, but the scoring ability drops off sharply after those three. Ibaka has improved steadily as a scorer, but his primary value will always rest on his defensive abilities, and taking Harden out of the equation could leave the Thunder without a veritable third option.
Yet the solution to this problem may already be in place. In the recent 2012 draft, the Thunder had the great fortune of watching talented enigma Perry Jones III slide to them down at the 28th overall pick. And though many critics have questioned Jones’ motor and ability to effectively play an NBA position, there is no denying his talent.
Harden and Jones are by no means similar players. Harden is a 6’5” shooter who excels at driving into the lane and initiating contact. Jones is a 6’11” combo forward whose combination of size and versatility have resulted in comparisons to (you guessed it) Kevin Durant.
Jones may have similar stature to Durant, but he lacks the polish and sweet-shooting ability that enabled Durant to become an immediate star in the NBA. Jones is a great finisher, and his jump shot has potential, but he has displayed an unwillingness to bang in the paint and often seems to float during games.
Jones' flaws were particularly evident during his two-year college career at Baylor. Jones put up solid numbers (13.5 points, 7.6 rebounds in 2011-12), but failed to meet the high expectations that accompanied him into college. However, his struggles may be largely due to his role in the Baylor system. Jones often struggled to get into an offensive rhythm and had little room to make use of the offensive versatility that is his trademark.
What Jones needs is a system, and a role, that will allow him to play to his strengths and play in a quick, dynamic offense that will allow him to take advantage of mismatches against opposing players.
Can the Thunder hold onto James Harden?
So fear not, Thunder fans, for there is no better team in the NBA to harness the latent skills of such a talented prospect. Much of Oklahoma City’s success has stemmed from their top-notch player development, and chances are good that the Thunder coaching staff will be able to draw the best out of a player with such great ability.
So although Jones remains very much a project for the time being, and will likely take a while to develop, it’s not so outlandish to think he could mold into a player capable of replacing or even surpassing Harden’s contributions to the Thunder.
And though minutes might initially seem unavailable for Jones, who projects as a big 3 or stretch 4 in the NBA, the increasing positional flexibility in the league makes it easier to picture a lineup featuring Durant, Jones and Ibaka all on the court at the same time. There’s little doubt such a triad would create significant matchup problems for opponents.
Perry Jones may not morph into the superstar he looked like coming out of high school, but he is a unique talent who has the opportunity to improve greatly under the tutelage of Kevin Durant and the Thunder coaching staff. Jones has proved that there is little he can’t do; it’s just a matter of putting his mind to it.
In the event that Harden decides to test his scoring mettle elsewhere, Jones should do a fine job of stepping in to keep the Thunder in contention. And if not, just imagine a lineup of Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Jones and Ibaka tearing up the NBA.