Harden and Ibaka were two keys to Oklahoma City's run to the NBA Finals this past season, but they are now both free agents. As restricted free agents, Oklahoma City has the chance to keep them, but should the Thunder lock up Harden and Ibaka? Just Harden? Ibaka?
The answer is yes — to both. General manager Scott Presti needs to keep Harden and Ibaka in Oklahoma City for many years to come.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were the two main guys who led the Thunder to the Finals, but although Durant and Westbrook are the leaders of the team, Harden and Ibaka were big contributors as well.
The Thunder, who had a great season and won the Western Conference, only fell short of beating the Heat because they were younger and more inexperienced. Dwyane Wade already won a championship with Miami in 2006 and played in the Finals last season. While LeBron James won his first championship this season, he had played in the Finals last season and in 2007 for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Thunder's Kendrick Perkins has some experience, winning a 2008 championship with the Celtics and appearing in the Finals in 2010, but Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha haven't been there before.
The Thunder are in a good position right now to win a few titles in the next decade, but they need more time together to improve as a team. Presti needs to get Harden and Ibaka locked in before the season begins because, as we have seen with players like Dwight Howard, contract disputes can be a distraction during the regular season. Off-court problems are something a team does not need while pressing for a championship.
Although it may seem a bit strange to have urgency to sign a player who comes off the bench, Harden would unquestionably be a starting shooting guard on any other team. He just falls into the sixth man spot because of Oklahoma City's personnel choices.
As a bench player, Harden still averaged 31.4 minutes per game last season and just under 17 points a game. Anyone would say that ain't too shabby.
Ibaka, who starts with Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant and Perkins, had a good season for someone who is still young and trying to establish his mark as one of the league's best defenders. He averaged 9.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and just under four blocks a game.
For Oklahoma City, the priority should be to keep Harden and Ibaka, because they were essential to the team that was best in the Western Conference. The Heat and Thunder are the two best teams in the NBA, and we may see something like what happened when the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers squared off in seven NBA Finals series from 1959-69 with the Heat and Thunder — if Harden and Ibaka return.
When teams in any sport win a championship or come up just short like the Thunder did, why make a change if you don't have to? Clearly, the team is good enough to do it again, so it's not worth the risks of letting key players go. So go ahead, OKC — bring back Harden and Ibaka sooner rather than later.
James Harden photo via Flickr/Keith Allison