What a summer for members of the U.S. men's basketball team. Blake Griffin tore the meniscus in his left knee. Andre Iguodala was traded. James Harden, who is eligible for a new contract at the end of this NBA season, returned from competing in an international tournament with many of the best players in the world to discover that re-signing him was not the top priority on his own team.
With a cruel, cruel summer like that, LeBron James may want to rethink his hope of participating in the next Olympics in 2016.
Harden, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year and newly decorated gold medalist, becomes a restricted free agent at the close of the 2012-13 season. So does teammate Serge Ibaka, who competed against Harden in the gold medal game and finished second in NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting last season. That presented a dilemma for the Oklahoma City Thunder, a young contender already committing eight-figure salaries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook through 2016 and 2017, respectively. Signing both Ibaka and Harden and adding them to an expensive core of Durant, Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins would put the Thunder well above the luxury tax threshold in the near future and at a potentially dangerous amount for the second-smallest market in the league.
The Thunder made clear their priorities by signing Ibaka to a four-year, $48 million extension, and as with most of the things this organization has done over the past five years (apart from that whole bit about conning its way out of Seattle), it was the right move. Ibaka is a 22-year-old shot-blocking force whose $3.3 million qualifying offer next summer was laughably low, and in short order he has surpassed JaVale McGee, a similar pogo-stick big man who already had his big payday.
Players of Ibaka's skill set are much more difficult to replace than Harden's, for all of Harden's excellence. Teams pay for size and athleticism, which is why McGee will make twice as much this season as Jason Terry, a proven veteran with a Sixth Man trophy to his credit. Glue guys off the bench, even ones as great as Terry and Harden, come along all the time.
Unlike McGee, though, Ibaka is not a complete wild card. While McGee's potential is enticing, there is no consensus on whether he will capitalize on his gifts. Ibaka has improved noticeably in all three seasons in the NBA, even adding a midrange jump shot last season. This season, there is talk of him becoming more of a pick-and-roll threat with Harden and Durant. If Kevin Garnett will be a bargain for the Celtics this season at $11 million, Ibaka, who is 13 years younger than Garnett and getting better every week, could be an even bigger bargain at roughly $12 million.
The Thunder now have committed more than $55 million to four players in the 2014-15 season, and last time we checked, that was not enough players to field a team or even a starting lineup. If either Ibaka or Harden had to be the casualty, the correct choice was Harden, but the Thunder may not even need to make that decision. The fourth-highest paid player in Oklahoma City right now is Perkins, and while he is still a favorite among Celtics fans, even the biggest Perk supporters surely acknowledge that he will not be worth more than $9 million in 2014-15.
One popular theme since the Dwight Howard trade is that the Thunder will need both Perkins and Ibaka to compete with the Lakers' post duo of Howard and Pau Gasol. That only makes sense if one believes Perkins and Ibaka together can contain Howard and Gasol, which they cannot. The Thunder's best chance for defeating the Lakers in a seven-game series is to go small with Ibaka at center, Durant at power forward and Harden, Westbrook and someone like Thabo Sefolosha in the backcourt. Thunder general manager Sam Presti and coach Scott Brooks recognize this, which is why speculation has already started that Oklahoma City will use the amnesty provision on Perkins sometime in the next two years.
This decision therefore was not necessarily about whether to sign Ibaka or Harden, but which to sign first. Ibaka was the priority. The Thunder needed his numbers finalized so they could work around them to sign Harden, rather than having to make the exact figures of Ibaka's deal work around Harden's. Yes, the Thunder would like to have Harden around for a long time, but if they plan on remaining a championship contender for several years, having Ibaka around is not something they would like. It is something they need.