The Oklahoma City Thunder have made a huge mistake.
By paying Serge Ibaka $48 million last August, they’ve capped themselves out, meaning they’ll have to venture deep into Luxury Tax territory—or get really creative on the trade market—if they want to retain their other marquee free-agent-to-be, James Harden.
Apparently, OKC figured it was more important to lock up the athletic power forward than it was to save money for the team’s third-best wing player. The gravity of this mistake is hard to understate because there’s not a metric on earth that shows Ibaka to be a more valuable player than Harden.
But even if Oklahoma City decides not to extend Harden before the 2012-13 season starts—which will allow The Beard to hit restricted free agency this summer—the Thunder will have both Ibaka and Harden in the fold as they try reach the NBA Finals for a second straight season.
So, while it seems the Thunder have cast their financial lot with Ibaka, there’s absolutely no question that James Harden is more important to the Thunder’s title hopes than his already-paid teammate. Here’s why:
Breaking Down Harden’s Regular Season Numbers
Last year, Harden was immensely more valuable than Ibaka during the regular season. That fact is hardly surprising, given that Harden was also more valuable than just about every other NBA player during last year’s 66-game campaign.
From an offensive efficiency standpoint, Harden was, without exaggeration, one of the NBA’s 10 best players. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Harden was the league’s seventh-best player in isolation sets, the ninth-best pick-and-roll ball handler and the No. 1 overall player when he got the ball off screens or handoffs. Every one of those ratings puts Harden in the NBA’s top two percent.
His efficiency ratings are no surprise, though, when you consider his game. Harden excels in the NBA’s two most valuable offensive areas: he gets to the hole and he hits his threes. Of his 10 shots per game last season, eight of them were either behind the three-point line (where Harden shot a solid 39 percent) or at the rim (where he led all NBA guards with a field-goal percentage of 70.4 percent).
Even Harden’s assists were efficient; 2.6 out of his 3.7 helpers last year resulted in chances from behind the arc or at the rim. Every single thing Harden does on offense is flat-out elite.
If there’s an area where Harden is anything but spectacular, it’s on defense. He’s a middling defender, rating right in the middle of the pack according to Synergy. But as a total package, Harden’s plus-minus last season was plus-367, tied with Kevin Durant and just one point behind Russell Westbrook’s team-leading plus-368.
James Harden was a superstar last year. There’s no clearer way to say it.
Breaking Down Ibaka’s Regular Season Numbers
Knowing now just how terrific Harden was last season, nobody should be surprised to learn that Ibaka didn’t have anything near Harden’s value last year.
Offensively, Ibaka is an extremely limited player who depends on others for virtually all of his touches. If he doesn’t score on the offensive glass, he requires a pick-and-pop setup from one of his teammates or a solidly executed pick-and-roll.
Because of his dependence on his teammates, Ibaka’s usage rate was far lower than Harden’s. But to his credit, Ibaka did play very efficiently on offense, rating in the 89th percentile overall, according to Synergy.
But here’s where his value takes a hit: Ibaka’s backup, Nick Collison, might actually have been better than him last year.
That’s right, by a number of different measures, the Thunder were better with Collison on the floor. Ibaka put up a nice plus-minus figure of plus-206 last year. But Collison blew him away with a plus-267.
Ibaka proved himself to be a solid shooter from 16-23 feet, making 46 percent of his tries from that distance. Collison shot 53 percent from the same range, making him the most accurate power forward in the NBA (among those that played at least 20 minutes per game) from that distance. At the rim, Collison and Ibaka’s field-goal percentages were nearly identical, too.
Supporters of Ibaka are quick to point out that his contributions on defense make him much more valuable than Collison (a decent point) and possibly more valuable than Harden (a completely inaccurate contention).
Ibaka has benefited from the myth that shot-blocking equals defense, a fallacy that has persisted in NBA circles for some time. And while there’s no denying the fact that Ibaka is the league’s best shot-blocker, there’s also simply no evidence to show that he’s anything more than a slightly above-average defender.
For starters, Ibaka rated below James Harden on defense, according to Synergy. And the Thunder were only 2.8 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Ibaka on the floor, according to 82games.com. That figure is quite a bit better than Harden’s, but it’s not elite.
So, taking all the data from last season, it’s clear that Harden was a phenomenal player, while Ibaka was simply “pretty good.” But the Thunder are chasing a title, so it’s only fair to compare the two players’ values in the most recent postseason before closing the book on the question of who’s more important to OKC’s title hopes.
The 2011-12 Playoffs
James Harden took a lot of criticism for his alleged failure to show up for the NBA finals against the Miami Heat. In that series, he averaged just 12.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists in 32 minutes per game. What’s strange is that Ibaka wasn’t similarly treated for his poor performance.
Against the Heat, Ibaka averaged just seven points, 5.2 rebounds and 2 blocks per game in 26 minutes. That’s not much production from a starting power forward.
It’s pretty clear that neither Harden nor Ibaka played up to their potential in the postseason—both players’ numbers were much worse than the ones they put up in the regular season. But even though both underperformed, it’s still clear that Harden was more valuable overall.
In trying to match up with the much bigger Lakers and Spurs—and the much smaller and quicker Heat—OKC used a ton of different lineup combinations in last year’s postseason. If we cut off groupings that OKC used for less than 30 total minutes during the playoffs, we learn that of the Thunder’s top three most effective five-man units, James Harden was on all of them.
Not one featured Ibaka.
And in four out of five games in the Finals, Harden—despite playing so far below his regular season levels—still had a better plus-minus rating than Ibaka. Not to pile on, but Nick Collison also had a better plus-minus figure than Ibaka in four out of five Finals games.
Overall, Serge Ibaka is a good NBA player whose youth still provides the opportunity to improve. But Harden is just as young, just as capable of getting better and far less replaceable. Looking at the stats, Nick Collison is only a slight downgrade from Ibaka. On the other hand, there are only a few NBA players on Harden’s level.
For the Thunder, who are as hungry for a title as any team in the league, James Harden is much more important than Serge Ibaka.
And really, it’s not even close.