During the 2012 offseason, the Oklahoma City Thunder had two developing star players who were due to sign contract extensions. Both James Harden and Serge Ibaka were worth big money, but in the end the Thunder could only sign one long-term.
Though many may not believe it, it was the right decision for this franchise at this point in time. While Harden might be a better player in general with his elite abilitiy to score, assist and rebound from the shooting guard position, Ibaka is a better fit for what the team needs.
His defense and athletic potential could not be replaced, whereas the Thunder already have many of the attributes Harden brings to the table in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Too Much of a Great Thing
On any team at any level of basketball, there are only a certain amount of touches and shots to go around. When you play on a team with Durant and Westbrook, you are not going to get many shots for yourself.
Harden is a perimeter scorer, and while those have actually become more valuable in today’s NBA than big men, the Thunder are not the typical team.
They have everything that Harden could give in Durant and Westbrook, only better. Ibaka does things that neither of them can do, which makes him more valuable.
He also is a player who plays off of them offensively, while Harden was better with the ball in his hands. That makes Ibaka a better complement to Oklahoma City’s superstar duo offensively.
Another thing that made Ibaka the right choice over Harden was his defense.
While Ibaka has yet to fully tap into his defensive potential, he is still a much better defensive asset than Harden ever has been. His shot-blocking ability alone makes him one of the biggest defensive difference-makers in the game.
Ibaka is averaging 2.9 blocks per game during the 2012-13 season. That means that he is taking potentially 5.8 points off opposing teams’ scores night in and night out. Few other players in the league make such a defensive impact.
Harden had improved defensively toward the end of his time in Oklahoma City. Gone were the days when he was a liability, but he was never more than average.
Ibaka is far above average in regard to protecting the rim, and he has the potential to become a defensive superstar in the years to come. The Thunder’s rise to an elite level over the past three or four seasons has been built on defense, and Ibaka’s role in that philosophy going forward makes him vital to the team’s success.
Another plus Ibaka has over Harden is in future potential.
When you compare the trajectory of their careers, you can see that both have steadily improved every season. However, it appears that Harden has already hit his pinnacle in most regards.
Sure, he will probably improve his rebounding, assists and shooting percentages as he becomes more accustomed to being a No. 1 offensive threat on a team. However, skill-wise there is very little he can really improve on.
Ibaka still has so much room to grow. Not only on defense where he has the potential to be a superstar, but also in every other area of his game.
His rebounding, offense, post game and ball-handling (as in the ability handle the ball down low) all have massive ways to go before he is a finished product. Harden is probably not going to get much better, and even if he does, it will be because he is free from the constraints of playing with Durant and Westbrook.
The reason Ibaka has so much more potential than Harden is because of his athleticism. Harden is not an overpowering athlete. Instead, he is a crafty player who knows the game and can do a bit of everything.
Ibaka is not an overpowering athlete either, but only because he is still too raw to recognize his full potential. The 2012-13 season has shown Ibaka to be much improved, and he does not appear to be ready to stop.
The Thunder are all about being good now and in the future. James Harden made them good now, but he could not have improved into a superstar for this Thunder team.
Ibaka makes them good now, but he also has the chance to become a superstar with this team. Why? Because, unlike Harden, he does not need the ball in his hands, he has defensive juggernaut potential and he is one of the most athletic players in the game.
Harden needed to be free to grow as a player. Ibaka can grow as a player alongside Durant and Westbrook. That is why the Thunder chose him, and it was the right choice.