Is James Harden or Serge Ibaka More Important to OKC Thunder's Future?

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Is James Harden or Serge Ibaka More Important to OKC Thunder's Future?
Photo Credit: The Big Lead

The Oklahoma City Thunder are bracing themselves for an impending crisis, assuming it hasn't arrived at their doorstep already.

James Harden will be destined for restricted free agency come July 1, 2013 if the Thunder don't sign him to an extension by Halloween. Serge Ibaka would've been in the same boat if not for the four-year, $49 million deal he recently garnered from OKC.

That means that, starting in 2013-14, the Thunder will have three players—Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Ibaka—earning $12.25 million or more per season, with Kendrick Perkins slated to take home approximately $17.6 million over the final two years of his pact.

How, then, is Harden going to get paid? And with whose money?

As it happens, even the happy-go-lucky, all-for-one-and-one-for-all Thunder may not be immune to the "Disease of More," as Grantland's Bill Simmons has referred to it in the past.

It seems like only yesterday that the Thunder were anointed the NBA's "Dynasty of the Future" after cracking the Finals with a core of 20-somethings. Now OKC's reign may see its salad days tossed out the window before its key components are properly dressed with championship jewelry.

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That is, unless Harden does the "good guy" thing and settles for less money to stay in OKC, or (basketball gods willing) team owners and Great Plains gazillionaires Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon feel it prudent to pony up the beaucoup bucks that the Olympian deserves and bite the salary cap bullet thereafter.

Ask folks in Seattle if they think that'll happen.

At this point, if the Thunder are to keep the size of their payroll in line with that of their television market (the third-smallest in the NBA), they'll likely have to cut ties with The Beard in the not-so-distant future.

A somewhat suspect calculus by GM Sam Presti, indeed, but not an entirely unwise one.

In Durant and Westbrook, OKC can already count in its employ two players who do what Harden does—score and occasionally create offense for others.

Harden does so quite efficiently and, at times, spectacularly off the bench, earning the 2011-12 Sixth Man of the Year award in the process. He actually led the Thunder in points per shot, true shooting percentage (which considers two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws), effective field goal percentage (which adjusts for the value of three-pointers) and offensive rating last season, and tied Durant for the team lead in win shares per 48 minutes.

And, from a pure numbers perspective, Harden's 16.8 points (on 49.1 percent shooting), 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists aren't too shabby, either—especially for a guy who's yet to turn 23 and is heading into his fourth NBA season.

Stats aside, Harden brings plenty to the table as a jack-of-all-trades-type of player on offense. He can shoot from distance (39 percent on threes), handle the ball, run the pick-and-roll and serve as a facilitator up top.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Ibaka's no slouch, either, though his paperwork makes you wonder whether or not he's actually worth more than $12 million per year. He averaged all of 9.1 points and 7.5 rebounds as OKC's starting power forward, albeit with a league-leading 3.7 blocks per game.

Frankly, Ibaka's outstanding swat stats mask the fact that he's not yet an ace position defender. What's more, he's been known to bite on even the slightest of pump fakes to the point where he often finds himself in foul trouble as a result.

That being said, Ibaka sports a repertoire that makes him a valuable complement to OKC's Big Three; that is, he's tall (6'10), he rebounds and he patrols the paint defensively. His "big man" resume is boosted further by his ability to set screens, cut to the basket and hit shots consistently out to 18-20 feet.

Quality size is hard to come by in the NBA, and Ibaka is nothing if not befitting of such a description. He's improved considerably from year to year and, with his 23rd birthday upcoming in September, only figures to follow that upward trend.

Harden, on the other hand, is a guard, albeit a good (and quite possibly great) one. Guys of his size and skill set are a dime a dozen in the NBA, even if ones of his caliber aren't.

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And, as nice as Harden's numbers look on paper, it's easy to forget that he's done most of his work against second-stringers. This isn't to diminish the importance of Harden's role as a reserve assassin so much as to contextualize stats that can be so easily overblown.

Given the choice between Harden and Ibaka, then, the Thunder's rationale makes eminent sense, though not without precipitating some regrettable (if unavoidable) consequences. If a team is going to overpay for anything, it might as well splash cash at a versatile and ever-improving big who starts than a versatile and ever-improving guard who comes off the bench.

That being said, if Harden decides to forgo his true market value and stay in OKC for, say, $10 million or less per year, then by all means, the Thunder should get a pen in his hand. And if ownership is amenable to dipping into the luxury tax to do so, even better.

Because that's where the small-market Thunder will be financially with Harden on board for the long haul. They're already over the salary cap and will be until 2015-16, when their payroll is slated to consist of Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and rookie-to-be Perry Jones III—for a total of just more than $50 million.

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Of course, if the Thunder want to remain in title contention for the foreseeable future, it would behoove them to spend to keep Harden. As the Miami Heat (positively), the Los Angeles Lakers (negatively) and the Dallas Mavericks (both) have shown over the past two seasons, championships aren't typically won by those teams that try to stay in contention while shaving money off their books.

To be sure, that could all change as the new Collective Bargaining Agreement continues to take effect. For now, though, the formula remains the same: spend to win.

And if that changes, then it'll be time to bid farewell to James Harden's stay in OKC—for better or worse.

 

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