Immediately following the controversial James Harden trade (and his subsequent offensive wizardry in his first two games with the Houston Rockets), the basketball world exploded with an “Oklahoma City chose Ibaka over Harden” narrative.
The general idea was that the Thunder made a huge mistake by picking Ibaka over Harden, that the Thunder were no longer a serious title contender and that OKC was probably going to be the worst team in the league.
Okay, that last one is made up. But the fact remains that the “choice” of Ibaka over Harden was written off as a major setback for OKC.
Obviously, the Thunder didn’t want to lose Harden, and his loss did hurt the team (though Kevin Martin has done a fantastic job in Harden’s place). But acting as though Ibaka’s contract extension was a gigantic misstep for the Thunder is just plain dumb.
First of all, OKC never chose to keep Ibaka over Harden. Ibaka may have agreed to his four-year, $48 million extension first, but Harden had repeatedly mentioned his willingness to sacrifice for the good of the team, and most people took him at his word (Note: This is no indictment of Harden. It's tough to pass on $80 million).
The idea that OKC would end up keeping both guys never really seemed to be in doubt up until the bomb dropped, and Harden was suddenly gone.
Did Ibaka’s contract make it harder for the Thunder to keep Harden? Absolutely. But the same could be said about Kendrick Perkins’ $35 million contract.
The fact is that the Thunder could have re-signed Harden but decided not to because they didn’t want to venture deep into the luxury tax and totally lose their cap flexibility. It wasn’t a strict “Ibaka or Harden” choice.
But going beyond that, Serge Ibaka’s contract and Harden’s subsequent departure can actually be seen as good for the Thunder for two reasons—the flexibility that they've gained and the fact that Serge Ibaka is really freaking good.
Following the Harden trade, Darnell Mayberry of NewsOK.com wrote about the precarious cap situation that the Thunder avoided, saying:
In 2014-15, that bill for those same five players (Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins) would have been around $72 million. The tax level this year is $70.3. So the Thunder would have been staring at a tax bill that started at $3 million before even fielding the remaining eight players necessary on the roster.
That’s absurd. If Ibaka’s contract extension did inadvertently lead to Harden’s departure, then it also led to OKC gaining a lot more flexibility both financially and personnel-wise.
There’s no denying that a team led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Ibaka and Harden could have been a great one. But it would also have allowed for little depth and little wiggle-room if anything ever went wrong.
Now, OKC not only has some cap room to maneuver with, it also has some intriguing pieces moving forward—both as trade chips and as contributors.
The three biggest returns for the Thunder were Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb and a Toronto Raptors first-rounder that has top-three protection this year.
As mentioned above, Martin is doing an outstanding job fitting in as a scorer off the bench. His $12.9 million salary expires at the end of this season, and if the Thunder don’t feel like they can re-sign him for a discount (Martin has raved about finally playing for a winner), then they can try to flip him at the deadline or simply ride out the season with him.
Lamb is a legitimate lottery talent (taken No. 12 overall), and if the Toronto Raptors continue playing the way that they have (2-6 on the season), then OKC could have a very high lottery pick on its hands as well.
That’s a lot of intriguing options for Sam Presti, one of the league's best general managers, to play around with.
Let’s also not forget the fact that Serge Ibaka is really, really good...and only getting better.
Oklahoma City will be paying Ibaka approximately $12 million a year. That wouldn’t be a terrible deal for Ibaka, the league’s best shot-blocker, as he currently stands as a player. But when you consider that he’s 23 years old, a freak athlete and is just now beginning to scratch the surface of his talents? When all is said and done, Ibaka’s contract could be a steal.
Just take a look at some of the other contracts that big men have received around the league.
Carlos Boozer is making $15 million per year, DeAndre Jordan is making just a shade under $11 million, and the Denver Nuggets just extended JaVale McGee to the tune of $11 million a year. Ibaka is significantly better than every single one of those guys right now, and has just as much, if not more, room to grow.
Heck, it’s not absurd to think that Ibaka would have been offered a max deal had he hit free agency. ESPN’s Beckley Mason wrote about the situation, saying:
If we use the four-year, $58 million contact of Roy Hibbert as a barometer for a big man’s market value, it’s reasonable to assume that, after next season, at least one team and probably more would be willing to give Ibaka a deal equal to what Hibbert received.
Still though, exactly how much value the Thunder get out of Ibaka’s contract is going to come down to his individual improvement. Luckily, the big man seems to grow almost on a game-by-game basis.
Everyone loves watching “Iblocka” stage one of his crazy block parties, but his shot-blocking ability sometimes hurt the Thunder last year. Ibaka had a tendency to hunt for blocks last season, leaving his feet far too often and sometimes getting well out of position in his effort to swat someone.
Though he still makes the same mistakes on occasion, he has cut down on them this season and has been much more solid in his defensive rotations.
Ibaka’s burgeoning offensive game has also begun to shine. He showed off an impressive mid-range game in last year’s playoffs, and his efficiency has carried over to this season despite the fact that he’s shooting more than ever.
He has already posted two 20-point games on the season and is becoming a threat to go for 20 or more points on any given night. Ibaka’s willingness to pull the trigger on mid-range shots is a big improvement as is his vastly superior free-throw shooting this season. He has hit 22-of-24 at the stripe, good for 91.7 percent. It's still early, but that would be a dramatic increase from his 66-percent free-throw shooting last season.
But it’s plays like this dunk against the Chicago Bulls that really showcase Ibaka’s offensive growth. Thanks to Ibaka's improved jumper, Taj Gibson is forced to respect Ibaka’s shot fake, allowing Serge to blow by him for the easy dunk (though admittedly, it's tough to play worse help defense than Carlos Boozer did there). That's a play that Ibaka wouldn't, or maybe even couldn't, have made as recently as six months ago.
Just how good Serge Ibaka will become remains to be seen. But it's clear is that the Thunder did not hurt themselves by giving him a contract extension. The flexibility that OKC has recently acquired, as well as Ibaka’s inevitable growth, makes the deal not only one that they won't regret, but one that they may consider a tremendous bargain down the road.