A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Sam Presti’s real devastating blunder: Ibaka over Harden

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English: Serge Ibaka, basketball player from O...

English: Serge Ibaka, basketball player from Oklahoma City Thunder (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oklahoma City’s James Harden trade which is now turning into one of the most important in NBA history, has been much derided. Two main criticisms are that they didn’t get enough back in Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and picks, or that they should have just played out the year with Harden to try and win the title, before moving them. I’m not as critical as the former as many because I see Lamb as a future star. The latter is a very valid criticism, the Thunder degraded their title chance in 2013 unnecessarily.

However what I see as the real head scratcher and devastating move for Presti, is the decision to essentially choose Serge Ibaka over James Harden. The team clearly couldn’t keep both on large contracts with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with owners who wanted to stay under the luxury tax, but by trading one it would have worked. The Thunder chose to keep Ibaka and trade Harden. In the long run this is the decision that truly matters.

The justification some gave for this, is that Ibaka compliments Durant and Westbrook more. Ibaka is the defensive heart of the team while Harden was an offensive star like Durant and Westbrook. Ibaka is a big while all three of Durant, Westbrook, Harden are perimeter players taking each other’s minutes and shots.

Using this to take Ibaka over Harden was a huge mistake. What really rules the NBA is star talent. And even before his Houston breakout as a franchise player, it was clear Harden was the special, star talent and Ibaka closer to a role player.

The idea that Ibaka was more desirable because he plays defense, is flawed because star talents make it easier to build defensive teams. First of all, with Durant, Westbrook and Harden on the team, the Thunder could fill out the entire rest of the roster with plus defensive players, if not specialists. Last year in the playoffs the offensively significant, defensive sieve Kevin Martin had a featured role and defensively significant, offensive liability Ronnie Brewer wasn’t playing. Having Harden instead of Ibaka allows the Thunder to put Brewers on the teams instead of Martins.

Also relevant is the concept of energy. When playing with Durant, Westbrook and Harden, everyone else would be depended on to expend energy on the defensive end that they didn’t offensively. Arguably one of the reasons that players like Norris Cole, Iman Shumpert, Avery Bradley have struggled shooting the ball so far in their career, is that they’re giving everything they have defensively. For a player like Reggie Jackson, his defensive energy is likely to be different if he’s depended on as the Thunder’s 3rd option next year, than if he had a Cole-like strict defensive specialist role on a team with Harden on it.

The point is that a team with Westbrook, Durant and Harden wouldn’t have had a problem playing defense, whether it’s because they could fill out the roster with defenders, or because those defenders would have energy. Furthermore all three of those stars are physically superior to their position, giving them the opportunity to play better than average defense as they mature, especially with having each other to take off the pressure of carrying an offense from each other. In addition to this, the Thunder also had other defensive role players like Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins. I have little doubt the Thunder would’ve been good enough defensively to contend year in and year out with Durant, Westbrook and Harden.

The other relevant point is that Serge Ibaka isn’t THAT good at defense. He is not Ben Wallace, he is not Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan on the defensive end. He blocks shots at a great level, but has a disappointing feel for positional rotations and defense that doesn’t show up on the statsheet. I strongly object to Ibaka getting put in the defensive player of the year conversation with other more instincts-friendly players like Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert. I certainly didn’t see Ibaka making a real defensive impact on the game when the Thunder needed it against Memphis this year. Serge Ibaka is a good player, but he is not a great player. What really moves the needle in the NBA is great players.

As for Ibaka playing a big man position being more appealing than three perimeter players, what really matters is how much a player helps a team win, not what position he plays. Harden may not have been able to play as many minutes at SG as Ibaka at PF, but in my opinion, not enough to make up for the difference that Harden is the superior player per minute.

While the hindsight-trades game can get dull, to me the real moment for the Thunder was this. If they had put Ibaka on the trade block on draft night 2012, surely they’d have found suitors. The Sacramento Kings reportedly were shopping the 5th overall pick or upgrades and Ibaka is a perfect fit beside Demarcus Cousins. The Detroit Pistons likewise could’ve paired up Ibaka and Greg Monroe for the 9th pick. The Milwaukee Bucks drafted John Henson 14th, a similar enough prospect to Ibaka that surely they’d have preferred the established version. The natural move for the Thunder was to get a lottery pick for Ibaka and draft a cheap big man in one of Thomas Robinson, Andre Drummond, Meyers Leonard or John Henson to replace him at PF. Some of those picks would’ve worked out better than others it appears, but Oklahoma City have already proven they’re reliable at drafting, why not lean on it again? Not to mention that even if the worst case scenario of drafting a bust, with Durant, Westbrook and Harden, they’d have gotten over it just fine. Trading their 4th best and most talented player in Ibaka for a cheap big man who could do 80-100% of what he does was the move, not trading one of their star talents.

Ultimately Sam Presti has done a lot right with the Thunder, but the decision to take Ibaka over Harden is crippling. Sometimes it’s as simple as “Team up the best players and figure out the rest later”, seemingly taking Ibaka for positional and fit reasons, is missing the forest from the trees.

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Written by jr.

July 6, 2013 at 11:53 am

2 Responses

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  1. There’s a lot to take issue with here but I think the most obvious problem is you are ignoring that they were able to get Ibaka cheaper than Harden. Harden was demanding max money. Ibaka signed for 4 years 48 million. And even with the relatively cheaper deal that Ibaka is on the Thunder are still only a million or so under the luxury tax next season with Serge’s extension kicking in. Hard to envision bringing in so many of these plus defensive players when you are over the luxury tax line as would have been the case with a maxed out James Harden on the roster.

    Erin K.

    July 7, 2013 at 5:57 am

  2. Another clown post from you about Presti. Only an oaf would argue the Thunder needed Harden’s skillset more than Ibaka.

    The one who knocks

    October 11, 2014 at 1:19 am


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