Sam Presti Picked Serge Ibaka Over James Harden, And Somehow No One’s Talking About It

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the Oklahoma City Thunder do not attempt to re-sign James Harden next offseason. Before you scoff at that possibility, know this: OKC has approximately $58.5 million committed to six players in 2013-2014: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha. If we assume the 2013-2014 cap will resemble this year’s $58+ million, that leaves very little money to fill out the other 10 roster spots. If we then take the 4 years, $58 million max offer sheet for a restricted free agent in 2012-2013 as a rough measurement of the offer James Harden will receive (and deserve) next season, that equals approximately $14.5 million a year. Which means: Oklahoma City cannot afford James Harden without delving deep into the luxury tax abyss.

For all intents and purposes, the Thunder had a decision to make: Serge Ibaka or James Harden. Ibaka’s recent four-year extension clearly indicates, however, that the decision was made. Many have flirted with the possibility of amnestying Kendrick Perkins’ bloated $8 million per year deal to make room for Harden, but that still won’t cut it: OKC will still be at least $6 million over in year one, which is only slated to rise as the contracts of Westbrook, Durant and Harden elevate with each successive year. (Contracts are typically backloaded, with the yearly salary increasing every year.) So really, it boils down to some creative cap-fenagling or basketball fans coming to grips with a fact we’ve only skirted around. James Harden is entering his last year in Oklahoma City.

Sure, he could take less money or the OKC brass change their tune and eat the luxury tax. But let’s not count on what could be, and address one of the quieter decisions of the offseason: was Serge Ibaka the right choice?

There’s no doubt Harden is the more celebrated player. He’s the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, he has an awesome beard, and guards who can score will always light up the Internet before offensively awkward big men with lanky defensive arms. He’s the third wheel of the big three. He’s a cult hero. He throws white parties. He says all the right things. Serge Ibaka complains about playing time.

But the reality is this: James Harden is a poor man’s version of his more talented counterparts: he can’t quite shoot it like Durant, and he can’t quite take it to the rack like Russell Westbrook. Sure, he plays with that John Wooten-esque quick-but-don’t-hurry pace which Jeff Van Gundy loves, but the Thunder accurately assessed each player in terms of value. 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. 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.

Haggling aside, where’s the shock value in all of this? That feel good story, the young guns banding together to defeat the evil bandwagoners? Maybe it’s too early and all of this just hasn’t quite struck a present-feeling nerve.

It almost feels like the New York-Lin debacle. As Dime‘s resident Knick fan, I had a hard time letting go of his sentimental value. Whether or not Ray Felton was better took a backseat to the emotional pull – he was our little super child, so there was no way Jim Dolan would squabble over dollars when it came to our child. Of course, the writing was on the wall for a long time. The Knicks never hid their interest in Felton, and it seemed unlikely he would openly welcome a return to New York to backup its favored son. Still, we willingly drank in the delusion, if only because it was comforting.

That’s what we have here, I think. Although the emotional toll isn’t so fast paced and there’s still time for Sam Presti to work his genius, the writing is on the wall again. But really, won’t it feel weird to see James Harden rocking a Phoenix Suns’ jersey?

What do you think?

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