The Serge Ibaka extension raises multiple questions regarding what the team is planning to do with James Harden.
The news that Serge Ibaka has reportedly signed a 4-year $48 million extension—according to multiple sources—with the OKC Thunder means the squad will have three of its four young superstars—Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Ibaka—around for a long time.
Ibaka's signing was a great move by the Thunder brass. The Congo-native has improved dramatically since he's come into the league and has the type of potential that could have warranted a max-deal next summer. Instead, OKC locked up an elite low-post defender for much less money.
While the Thunder and its fans should be celebrating this move by Sam Presti, they also must consider what this move means for the team's fourth star, Harden. The 2012 Sixth Man of The Year is set to become a free agent at the end of the 2012-2013 season and could demand a max contract.
Presti is one of, if not the best GM in the league, so I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but you have to wonder what his plan is. Is he planning on letting Harden test the free-agent waters and banking on the Thunder's high chance of winning to lure him back? Or is he simply going to let him walk?
Of course, this is assuming Harden even makes it to free agency. The franchise and player could be (and likely are) working on an extension at this very moment. Presti has expressed a desire to bring back both Ibaka and Harden (via Yahoo! Sports):
We're looking forward to having those conversations, Presti said. Those guys are guys we drafted and have developed internally. We see them as guys who are important to sustaining our team.
Nevertheless, one thing is certain, if Harden stays in Oklahoma City he will be taking less money, as the small-market Thunder will simply be unable to pay Harden what other teams will surely be offering. Looking ahead to the 2014 season, the Thunder already have $55.3 million locked up in Durant, Westbrook, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha. While it is uncertain whether the salary cap will increase or decrease over next year's offseason, the salary cap for the 2012-2013 season is set at $58 million.
Harden, however, may very well be willing to take less money. After all, it was him that cited the uniquely close relationship he and his teammates have with one another and it was him that said a dynasty was being built (via ESPN):
This team is like a family. . . . Like, we're really brothers. This is something special here, Harden said. A dynasty is being built here.
If Harden doesn't take a max-deal from another team, the Thunder could likely resign him for an amount close to what Ibaka received, perhaps a few million more. That, however, would greatly restrict the franchise's ability to improve the team with quality free-agents. But hey, when you draft as well as the Thunder have over the last five years, who needs free agents?
Presti and the Thunder did it again in June when they drafted Perry Jones III out of Baylor. Jones III has an extremely high ceiling, but a poor work ethic and medical red flags scared teams off, allowing the skilled 6'10'' forward to drop to the Thunder. There were thoughts the drafting of Jones III meant Ibaka would be gone after the upcoming season—obviously that is not the case.
The Thunder have been one of the best young teams in the league and Harden is a huge piece of the puzzle. Presti and the rest of Thunder management have some tough decisions ahead of them as they enter the unfamiliar territory of possibly having too many great players.