Few phrases in the NBA are as terrifying as "maximum contract." Created as a tool to control costs, the max contract has instead become the baseline for any deal with any above-average player. The exact dollar amount differs based on service time, but Eric Gordon, Roy Hibbert and Brook Lopez are all among the players who have gotten maximum offers this year.
All of those guys are nice players. None immediately spring to mind when one thinks of a "max player."
This is not to say teams should not have offered them those deals, or that their team should not have matched when another team offered a max deal. Finding unguardable lead guards like Gordon, fundamentally sound big men like Hibbert or smooth-scoring 7-footers like Lopez is no easy task.
Occasionally, non-contending teams need to overspend as part of their rebuilding process into championship contenders. That is just the way it goes.
When Serge Ibaka and James Harden come up for new contracts next summer, the Oklahoma City Thunder therefore could have a difficult choice. The reigning blocks leader and the reigning Sixth Man of the Year could each vie for max money, and even though Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook make a reasonable $29.5 million combined beginning next season, the Thunder might not be able to pay all four potential All-Stars. Even if they retain both free agents, the Thunder will need to determine the exact salary figures by weighing which they value more, the intimidating shot-blocker or the bench glue.
In the race for major moolah, Ibaka would take the early lead if he accepts Hakeem Olajuwon's offer to work with him this offseason.
Olajuwon has been working the Hall of Fame coaching circuit for a while. His most recent and most famous pupil was LeBron James, who took in Olajuwon's lessons to finally become the low-post threat his critics have been begging him to be for years. Olajuwon proposed a few practice sessions with Ibaka in a text to Thunder coach Scott Brooks, according to The Oklahoman. If Ibaka and Olajuwon do team up this summer, it would be notable for two reasons.
1. Ibaka is serious about improving as an offensive player.
Many of the greatest shot-blockers have been content to remain merely that. Dikembe Mutombo, Theo Ratliff and Mark Eaton never developed an offensive arsenal to match their defensive abilities, which admittedly were enough for them to enjoy productive careers. Even Dwight Howard, for all his game-changing defensive brilliance, has thus far failed to become nearly as fearsome with the ball in his hands.
Olajuwon was the rare rim-protector who worked so hard on his offensive game, many fans have forgotten how great a defender he was. The two-time NBA champion is now most closely associated with "The Dream Shake," his shifty pivot moves in the post, despite being the league's all-time leader in blocked shots.
On some levels, Olajuwon and Ibaka are similar. Both are athletic big men with the foundation of a solid offensive game somewhat shrouded by their rawness. Olajuwon developed his game all the way to the Hall of Fame, and Ibaka may have a head start with a midrange jump shot that is better than Olajuwon's at the same stage in his career.
By agreeing to work with Olajuwon, Ibaka would signal that he is not satisfied with being a shot-swatter. That sort of initiative could make a difference when Sam Presti is considering whether Ibaka or Harden is worth bigger money. Considering Harden's struggles in the NBA Finals, the team would probably like to see the same enterprising attitude from its sixth man.
2. Olajuwon brings results.
It would be one thing if "working with" Olajuwon meant shooting a few layups and playing a couple games of H-O-R-S-E. As many of the Washington Wizards who got to "work with" an aging Michael Jordan in practice quickly learned, greatness does not transfer through osmosis. Actual care and thought need to go into real instruction for the workouts to have an impact. Unlike His Airness, Olajuwon delivers.
Kobe Bryant's renowned footwork improved once he hooked up with Olajuwon, the guru of low-post footwork. Howard's baby hook became a significant weapon after time in the gym with Olajuwon, even though there are mixed reviews as to how receptive Howard has been to further instruction. James himself credited Olajuwon for his sudden metamorphosis into a beast on the block this season.
Ibaka, who has no back-to-the-basket game to speak of, can only improve that area of his game once Olajuwon gets a hold of him. Ibaka may never become Olajuwon's equal — "There's only one Olajuwon," said Brooks, who played three seasons with Olajuwon in Houston — but for a player who averages close to four blocks per game, even a token post game would bring a massive paycheck.
If only one player can be in Oklahoma City's plans beyond 2013, the edge now could belong to Ibaka. In a decisive offseason and upcoming season for both players, Harden has some catching up to do.
Maybe John Havlicek is available.