Why Sam Presti Should’ve Picked James Harden Over Serge Ibaka

08.31.12 4 years ago
James Harden

James Harden (photo. Nicky Woo)

Fellow Dime colleague, Dylan Murphy, is right. No one’s talking about Sam Presti picking Serge Ibaka over James Harden. And there are plenty of reasons behind the continued silence. The entire topic is a moot point. It’s clearly apparent to every basketball fan that James Harden should’ve been the choice for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Sorry, Dylan and Mr. Presti.

While OKC represents the new NBA standard for how small markets should build a team, this decision could shatter their lofty standing. Instead of cementing their place as an offensive juggernaut and title contender for years to come, they were reactive. And, in effect, they took a step back due to their unacceptable shortsightedness.

The macro-perspective of this move is what should really take precedence.

The great executives possess the foresight to see where the league is going. The rest stay behind or just end up mimicking the latest trend like the music industry. With the stricter salary cap implications forthcoming, building a squad is a game of chess, not checkers. Each roster spot holds more value. So, a franchise has to carefully evaluate what players provide the greatest impact for their dollar — an individual that maximizes every opportunity on the court. For Presti to choose Ibaka over Harden, it’s un-Spurs-like.

Didn’t the Miami Heat and these Thunder just meet in The Finals in June? Aren’t 28 other teams suppose to scramble to copycat them during the offseason?

Although their respective methods to construct a championship finalist are polar opposites, the essence that comprise these rosters are the same: top-heavy elite, perimeter scoring weapons.

The days of dumping the rock down low and defending those seven-foot monsters are long gone. As the Heat and the Thunder, in particular, just proved, the key to foundational success are cats that can consistently penetrate, dish and shoot from deep. In the past, teams couldn’t have enough big men. Now they can’t have enough guards. With the way the rules favor guard play, it only benefits clubs to prominently feature them in their offense. And these rules ain’t going to change any time soon.

As presently constituted, the Heat and the Thunder are the present and future of hoops. Their unconventional new approach is what’s becoming conventional. They were set to embark on a Finals reign for the next decade unseen since the 1980s (Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers). Neither the Celtics nor the Lakers have reached the Finals in the last two seasons while the Heat and Thunder dominated with one ‘ship in back-to-back trips and a conference finals and Finals appearance, respectively. Both teams supplanted the old school philosophy of having two giant frontcourt pillars.

An even more recent example of this shift was Team U.S.A. Basketball in London.

All the talk leading up and through the Olympic games was whether Team U.S.A. could handle dominant post play. Yet, a squad that only had one seven-footer, Tyson Chandler, and the Thunder’s big three of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden defeated those Gasol brothers and Ibaka by seven points in the gold medal game. The combined stat line for OKC’s trio was 35 points on 9-for-19 shooting, 10 boards and one dime while Spain’s read like this: 53 points on 19-for-32 shooting, 19 boards and nine assists. The numbers suggest Spain’s bigs had the upper hand. But they didn’t sustain this onslaught throughout the game. It just wasn’t enough.

[RELATED: Sam Presti Picked Serge Ibaka Over James Harden, And No One’s Talking About It]

The Finals and the Olympics demonstrated the importance of game-changing, multifaceted guards. Domestically or abroad, the venue of the game didn’t change this reality. The world saw the eradication of the widely-assumed notion that talented length and height is superior to any small-ball lineup.

Still, it’s difficult for most to acknowledge and accept the effect this development has on the larger picture.

“And now, especially in the Western Conference, the Thunder can’t expect to compete with the Los Angeles Lakers if they can’t hack it down low. Perkins and Ibaka, at least, can ensure that OKC doesn’t get eviscerated on the boards,” wrote Murphy.

The impact Kendrick Perkins and Ibaka will have against the Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard tandem is minimal compared to the kind Harden can have with Durant and Westbrook versus the Lakers. It would be one thing if Perkins and Ibaka were in the same class as Gasol and Howard, but they are not even close. You can make the case Gasol is the best power forward in the league and Howard is the best center. Where do Perkins and Ibaka rank in their respective positions? They’re not in the top five. The disparity is too hard to ignore and isn’t worth the money or trouble to keep.

As an individual, James Harden has also proven to be far more accomplished and valuable than Serge Ibaka, too.

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James Harden

James Harden (photo. Sean Sweeney)

He got snubbed from the All-Star team, yet that didn’t stop him from finishing the season strong. The Sixth Man of the Year award and earning a spot in U.S.A. Basketball only speaks to his character, work ethic and will to win. This past season showed just the cusp of his potential.

HoopSpeak.com‘s Ethan Sherwood Strauss further expounded on what makes Harden’s game so unique: “James is 22 years old, and posted an equivalent win share mark to Kevin Durant in his most recent season. He was fourth in the league in true shooting percentage (66 percent), and he shot more often than the three players ahead of him (Chandler, Steve Novak, and Manu Ginobili). He maintains such efficiency with a deadly outside shot, perceptive court vision, and a propensity for drawing fouls.”

And disregarding the forgettable Finals performance, Harden displayed how indispensable he is throughout the Thunder’s playoff run, finishing third among all guards in postseason win share average and PER.

These are the facts. Because of his superstar teammates in Durant and Westbrook, he isn’t given the same respect and credit. The majority of the time when he does get recognition, it’s for his Rick Ross-esque beard. There’s much more to Harden than what’s initially perceived. The multiple layers and diverse skill set are what make him a special player.

Yes, Ibaka is the fourth wheel who doesn’t get much love either. While he led the NBA with 3.65 blocks per game, it’s still weird that he was named to the All-Defensive First Team. Defensive stats like shotblocking and steals can be misleading. He may be starting the Thunder fastbreak with a block, but he’s sure as Hell not finishing them. On shots between 3-9 feet of the cup, his percentage was just 42.7, per HoopData.com. Now, if Ibaka learns to score at the rim with the same ferocity he blocks shots with, he’ll be worth picking ahead of Harden.

“And, put frankly, here it is: there are a lot of James Harden-type players out there, albeit worse versions, but there aren’t a lot of Serge Ibakas,” wrote Murphy.

Really? So there doesn’t exist worse versions of Serge Ibaka, too?

C’mon, the league is littered with big men whose entire purpose is to block shots, rebound and defend. There are way more tall stiffs who can barely score than there are dynamic playmakers. The same attributes Ibaka brings are the same attributes that led Dikembe Mutombo and Marcus Camby to play for a combined 13 different teams. That should shed light on the real value lanky shotblockers have around the league.

The common comparison Harden gets is Ginobili, and while their sixth man role, uncanny scoring ability, left-handed and underappreciated nature holds true, there’s another cat whose game is a closer comparison: Brandon Roy. People forget how nice Roy was prior to his injuries. At the time, he was easily the third-best shooting guard. They both play under the same pace, have a high hoops I.Q., and are clutch. If Harden convinces Scott Brooks it’s his time to be the starting two, this link to Roy’s game will become more popular, and he’ll start to be referred to as (at least) the third-best shooting guard right now.

Nevertheless, Perkins, instead, should be the odd man out in OKC and not Ibaka or Harden. The $6 million they would be over the cap in year one, in spite of a potential Perkins amnesty, is immaterial. It’s rare that a small market team has a window as wide as the Thunder do to compete for titles. Clay Bennett and Presti must continue to keep the core of this team intact for the foreseeable future, and while the Ibaka extension doesn’t push Harden out the door completely, it makes his potential departure more likely. It would be an utter shame and loss to the sport if they let Harden walk a year from now. Because there ain’t no denying Harden is hoopin’ hard for whatever jersey he’ll don next.

Do you think the Thunder will keep their four best players together?

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