In the crazy up and down lockout season the Thunder have shown to be the top of the NBA class. They have been ranked toward the top of power rankings all season and have shown to be the best and most dominate team in the Western Conference. The Thunder has taken a giant step forward this season mainly due to the play of forward Serge Ibaka and shooting guard James Harden. Their contributions to the team have not gone unnoticed by people in and around the league. In a recent article NBA.com's David Aldridge posed the question, "Iif you had to choose between Ibaka and Harden, which one would you keep?" He asked this to many former coaches, executives, and even other teams in the league. That got me thinking about who I would pick if I had to choose and who the Thunder should keep if they have to choose.
There is a simple answer to the Ibaka vs. Harden debate - keep them both. I am qualifying this point to say "if" the Thunder had to choose. I do not think this decision between the two players is inevitable. Some say the Thunder's decisions between these two players is more a matter of when and not if because OKC owner Clay Bennett's will and need to never approach the tax threshold. That along with the market size always poses a concern when trying to sign upper level players to long term deals. That does not have to be the case for Mr. Bennett and his Thunder team. In fact that should not be the case with the Thunder. I understand Mr. Bennett’s caution when it comes to staying on the right side of the tax threshold. And I hate to break out a silly cliché on Mr. Bennett but sometimes you need to spend money to make money. Or in the case of the NBA you need to spend near and sometimes over the tax threshold in order to win. Look at Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as someone who is not afraid to spend up to and sometimes over the tax threshold. For him, winning is the most important thing and he understands that sometimes you might need to take a step over that threshold. Now, an inverse of Mark Cuban and the Mavericks is the New York Knicks. For years the Knicks had permanent residence in the tax threshold and were God-awful. But my biggest fear for the Thunder is they end up like the Phoenix Suns. I always refer to the Suns as the Oakland A's of the NBA. They have a basketball system built around a great player (Steve Nash) and they will do everything they can to never get anywhere near the tax threshold. Until recently, the Suns traded away first round picks for aging players and future draft picks. Here is a list of players the Suns drafted and then traded away before the player even knew the Suns drafted them: Rajon Rondo, Nate Robinson, Rudy Fernandez, and Luol Deng. The Suns have tried their best to hide lesser players and plug them in around Nash, let him do his magic, and turn them into productive players. What have the Suns got to show for that? They are a mediocre team grasping at straws to stay relevant and competitive. Mr. Bennett needs to look at the Suns and learn to never, ever let the Thunder be controlled solely by the bottom line. One thing that the Thunder have going for them is one of the smartest and most savvy GMs in the league. Sam Presti has shown the ability to make everything he touches turn into a hit. We should now refer to him as the Pharrell Williams of the NBA.
But let’s play this game. If the Thunder must choose between Ibaka and Harden who should they choose? This is also an easy answer. It is Serge Ibaka. I like James Harden as a player. I like him as a guy. I liked him coming out of college. But I did question whether he was worthy of the 3rd overall pick. I thought the Thunder was making a mistake taking him over Steph Curry. Harden is a good player but he is not a player the Thunder need to win a championship. Harden is a shooting guard in the NBA who is dropping 16.7 points a game and shooting 39% from 3. It is not that uncommon to find a guy who can drop 16+ points a game in the NBA. Understand I am not trying to run down what James Harden brings to the Thunder. Well, I guess I am trying to run him down in order to make my argument. He adds a spark for this team off the bench but at his ceiling what is James Harden in the NBA? At his very best, I mean if everything goes right, the best James Harden could achieve in the NBA is Joe Johnson, a very good/sometimes elite shooting guard. Those are not the kind of players the Thunder needs to invest in with a long term deal and, more importantly, invest long term dollars in.
When the two main pieces on your team are two-time scoring champ, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook scoring is not a main concern. The team’s concern switches to how to stop other team. That is why Serge Ibaka is clearly the right choice to keep long term over James Harden. In the NBA, really good defense is at a premium and a player who is a really good individual defensive player is akin to owning an original copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 in mint condition. The Thunder has that in Ibaka. The ceiling for Serge Ibaka is as if you took Ben Wallace during the years he won Defensive Player of the Year, injected him with Gamma Rays to create a Ben Wallace/Hulk hybrid defender whose sole objective in life is to smash the ball. Although Ibaka's offensive game has improved since entering the league, his game will never reach the production that James Harden’s game is at right now. But I’ll say it again; offense is not a worry for this team. Anything the team gets from him on offense outside of put back dunks is gravy. And having that weapon at the back of your defense is a great weapon for the Thunder and makes all of their perimeter defenders that much better. Serge Ibaka is the Scythe, Kevin Durant is Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and the opposing team is The First.
This whole debate is a straw man argument for me. I understand there are potential obstacles that could force the Thunder into making this decision but those can be avoided. Thunder management know what they have and know how special it is. Now they need to know that is would be silly to let something like the tax threshold get in the way of winning championships.