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Serge Ibaka Contract Leaves James Harden In Questionable Territory With OKC Thunder

With news that the Oklahoma City Thunder have agreed to yet another long-term contract extension with one of the team's four core players -- Serge Ibaka, in this case -- fans have more reason than ever to rest easy about the team's ability to compete for the long-term with the largest markets in the NBA.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are already in the fold, giving the team a dynamite defender in the post, an elite point guard and the game's scoring leader locked up for a while. But what about their celebrated sixth man, one good enough to make the latest Team USA roster for the London Olympic games.

The Harden angle of all of this becomes infinitely more interesting with the deal for Ibaka. Durant and Westbrook were no-brainers, but the strategy became questionable when thinking about investing in the next tier of players. Ibaka and Harden are both nearing elite status as well in the NBA, and Harden would likely be there faster in the greater NBA conversation if playing for another team. As it is, he's still well-respected enough to warrant inclusion on Team USA.

"This deal leaves the future uncertain for guard James Harden, who could command a maximum contract on the league market as a restricted free agent next summer," writes Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. "Along with the remainder of Kendrick Perkins' three years and $27 million, the small-market Thunder will be hard-pressed to invest so much money into their payroll."

The question always revolved around Harden vs. Ibaka for assumedly final extension. There's no rule stating that the team cannot break the bank for Harden as well. If Clay Bennett and company want to pay the luxury tax to keep the feared foursome together, then he's allowed to do that. But millionaires become millionaires by knowing when to invest and when to cut costs. It's hard to imagine that the NBA roster changes the rules at all for the owner.

Perkins adds the asset the team will need in the middle as long as Dwight Howard stays in Los Angeles, and that's what further complicates the deal. Perkins is the man who should leave on paper. With Perkins' ongoing injury concerns (94 games played over the last two NBA seasons), it's hard to believe the team would choose to lose Harden while paying Perkins to defend the interior for such a cost. Yet his toughness inside is the sweet spot for the team's chances next season.

The good news is that Ibaka is done and locked up but it doesn't mean the work is over. If anything, it signals that Harden's days alongside his teammates might be numbered. Perhaps not and that is what Thunder fans have to hope for, but general manager Sam Presti has made his next move. It's a great one but it also potentially comes with some consequences of its own.

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