A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Oklahoma City’s marriage to Serge Ibaka

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The most important decision of the Oklahoma City Kevin Durant era was when they traded James Harden to Houston. Clearly the Thunder understood they couldn’t pay Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Harden long term and stay under the luxury tax.

Although there are other things problematic with the Harden trade such as dealing him a year too early, the real long term decision they made was choosing to keep Ibaka over Harden.

The Thunder likely made this decision on the merit of fit over raw talent. Harden was considered the Thunder’s “3rd star” over Ibaka at the time, but Ibaka is a defensive anchor and a big man, while Harden is an offensive perimeter star like Westbrook and Durant. Thus the Thunder decided they need a defensive anchor/big man more than a 3rd offensive perimeter star.

My main objection to this for the last few years is keeping the best offensive talent is a good idea, because defense can be made up for elsewhere. With Durant, Westbrook and Harden, the Thunder could have filled the rest of the team with defensive role players and done whatever they can playing-style to have a defensive identity. By giving more offensive responsibility to Harden, Durant and Westbrook, along with Harden himself, may have been groomed into expending more energy on defense such as how Chris Bosh became a far more valuable defender in Miami than Toronto now that he wasn’t required to use as much energy on offense. The Thunder would NOT have had a defense-less roster if they chose to trade Ibaka. Westbrook, Durant, Harden is still a physically imposing wing rotation on the defensive end and they had other role players like Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison who were game on that end. That’s before considering Ibaka could have gotten them strong value in return for a trade, possibly a defense-first cheap prospect or big.

However to defend the Thunder there may be a few other reasons to shy away from Harden. One is that we don’t know how Harden acted behind the scenes to being the Thunder’s 3rd perimeter scorer and whether long term he’d have wanted out to become a star elsewhere. Secondly, Harden’s personality is different than Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka’s. Harden’s reputation as loving nightclubs is now well known and his body is not as finely conditioned as his three former Thunder teammates. It’s possible the Thunder partly made they trade because they were turned off by factors like Harden’s late night habits or diet, especially during the 2012 Finals.

The Thunder haven’t made the Finals since they traded Harden as their 3rd star. They’d had a few excuses. It’s hard to blame them for 2013 when they didn’t have Russell Westbrook. Last year they lost Serge Ibaka for the first 2 games of the Spurs series. However they still lost the last 2 games of the series with Ibaka, including Game 6 at home when Tony Parker missed the 2nd half. If the Thunder had the team to beat the Spurs when healthy, there’s no way they can blow an elimination home game with the gift of Parker’s injury. I personally don’t feel the Thunder were going to beat the Spurs last year even if Ibaka played the whole series. The Spurs caliber of play had been higher in the regular season and postseason and they proved it the last few games of the series once they made the adjustment by putting Matt Bonner in the starting lineup to stretch the Thunder out. The Spurs point differential over the Thunder was also overall a massive domination, which is tough to blame on just 2 Ibaka-less games. Furthermore OKC missing Ibaka for 2 games is a problem some teams have to get past to win the title. When Miami won their title in 2012 they had to do with Chris Bosh for some of the 2nd and 3rd round and managed to get through it.

Still, the Thunder have plenty of time to prove their decision to keep Ibaka over Harden is correct. They’re playing the long game to develop young talents like Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams long enough to win around Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka before Durant and Westbrook hit their free agencies in 2016 and 2017. It’s hard to bag the Thunder for their post Harden plan not working yet when they’re only passed year 2 of it and those years were marred by injury.


But what’s interesting is they probably chose Ibaka over pursuing the “3 offensive star” model again. What I mean is the complete lack of Serge Ibaka-Oklahoma City involvement in the Kevin Love rumors this summer. I’m of the belief that if Oklahoma City offered Ibaka along with pieces like Jeremy Lamb and draft picks, there’s an excellent chance they’d be heavy players or leading for Love.

Consider the deal all signs say Minnesota wanted before Andrew Wiggins was offered, which is was a Klay Thompson/David Lee centered package from the Warriors. I presume Minnesota wants to win games next year and pursue the playoff appearances upside of a Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, etc. roster. Serge Ibaka is an ideal fit for this plan from Minnesota. He is both a win-now player and young enough to be in long term plans. He fits in perfectly beside Nik Pekovic, with Pekovic providing the low post offense and Ibaka providing the floor spacing and defense. When added to the Thunder’s ability to sweeten the deal with young prospects and draft picks, it’s exactly the type of deal to woo the Timberwolves right now.

Yet the Thunder have not been in the picture, it hasn’t even been reported they’ve made any offer at all. I would put the chances of the Thunder offering their best non-Durant and Westbrook pieces for Love but having it turned down behind the scenes, as fairly minimal. Even if turned down it’d likely have been heard about in some way or Minnesota would have leaked it to gain leverage over other suitors. Remember that Kevin Love trade rumors were going strong for a month before Cleveland’s Andrew Wiggins offer got involved, so it’s not as if Minnesota would have been turning down Ibaka for Wiggins this whole time, if charging hard after Love, Oklahoma City’s biggest opposition in mid-late June would have been the Boston and Golden State offers. It’s pretty easy to speculate a conclusion from this. The Thunder don’t have an interest in moving Ibaka for Love for some of the same reasons they chose Ibaka over Harden. They prefer having the defensive compliment over a 3rd offensive star, along with possible continuity reasons.

And I’m of the belief this is probably even crazier than choosing Ibaka over Harden. Love at least is a big man instead of a 3rd offensive wing, fitting into the lineup more than Harden did. Any concerns about Harden’s off-court commitment not being at Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka’s level, don’t exist with Kevin Love. Although he provides less defense than Ibaka, his offense is a perfect fit for the Thunder co-stars, providing devastating spacing on a roster where teams already struggle to defend Westbrook and Durant at once, along with his outlet passing skills complimenting Westbrook and Durant, two of the scariest transition players in the league for different reasons. He gives OKC what they’ve needed for a long time which is a low post scorer. In addition to his defensive rebounds, his offensive rebounding could provide a scary amount of 2nd chances, putback points and free throw line trips to an OKC offense that doesn’t even need it to dominate. Love is widely considered a better player than Serge Ibaka. Love is considered potentially the best true power forward in the game and a top 10 player in the league, which is the type of resume Serge Ibaka does not have. By virtue of being presumably better, I have to think there’s a good chance Kevin Love makes every team in the league better than if they had Ibaka.

Defensively Love could try to make a Bosh-like transition to a stronger defensive focus, while again, Westbrook and Durant may benefit defensively from playing with Love. It’s true they give up shotblocking by trading Ibaka, but they also gain all these other offensive things Love does that Ibaka doesn’t, along with his rebounding.

What it comes down to is that Durant, Westbrook and Love would be anchor an insanely talented at a level beyond the present Thunder. And when a franchise can overwhelm the league with star talent it usually works out. Some of the great teams haven’t been the best “fits” positionally. The 1980s Celtics effectively had 3 star bigs in Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish instead of a more balanced roster with a PG or SG star, but they still fit well and won 3 championships. The most recent Miami Heat had a lot of overlap between Dwyane Wade and Lebron James and at first before we knew Chris Bosh could make a defensive transition, it didn’t appear they had an anchor on that end. The list of teams who lost because they didn’t have enough talent, is longer than the list of teams who teamed up superstars in their mid 20s but didn’t fit together well enough to win.

Another HUGE motive for the Thunder to go after Kevin Love, is it takes him off the board for other teams. Letting Kevin Love be traded to the Cavaliers creates a serious threat in Cleveland to win the title the next two years. The Thunder snatching Love instead would’ve taken the wind out of Lebron’s sails, presuming the Cavs would then proceed with an Andrew Wiggins-centered long term plan. Likewise for when it looked like the Warriors were a top contender for Love last month. The Thunder would’ve been wise to act against a potential West behemoth being created in Golden State and a Stephen Curry-Kevin Love combination. Considering all the other reasons why it’s smart to trade Ibaka for a star talent in Love, strategically weakening the competition alone especially now that we know that competition is “Lebron’s team”, would just be the sealer for me. The Thunder would have 3 of the game’s superstars in their mid 20s and importantly, there’d be a shortage of other teams in the league who had more than one. This is the type of landscape giving them the upside of not just a title but a dominant dynasty.

Finally, there’s an argument just for variance. We saw how the 2013-2014 Thunder played in the regular season and postseason and it wasn’t spectacular. Again one can harp on the Ibaka injury, but not taking care of business in Game 6 at home with the injury bug on the Spurs side, is a major enough sign the Thunder weren’t ready to win the title last year. So why not trade Ibaka for Kevin Love for the sake of it being different? It’s not a guarantee to work out spectacularly as Durant-Westbrook-Love enter their names in superstar “Big 3” lore, but there appears to be a fair chance it could. And the downside? There’s only so badly a Durant-Westbrook-Love era could turn out. Perhaps there’s a chance they win games in the mid 50s but bow out in the 2nd and 3rd round. Well that’s the same downside the Thunder core right now has.

The Thunder have 2 seasons until Durant’s free agency and last year’s results would not make me excited about the status quo. That’s not to say they have to make a move just for the sake of it, but if you can team up a potential top 10 player in the league with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant? Why not see what’s behind this Door Number 2? Why not try to the shoot the moon? Why not go for the “scary, seize the balance of power of the league?” option? To be frank, don’t complicate it. Serge Ibaka is a good player, Kevin Love is a superstar player and going from good to superstar at PF could take the Thunder to an entirely different level in a way desperately needed to avoid Durant 2016 free agency problems.

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Written by jr.

August 1, 2014 at 3:29 pm

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