The question of whether the Oklahoma City Thunder will keep James Harden or Serge Ibaka when it comes time to make tough choices about the team's salary structure is a good one. Every time there's an obvious swing in one direction -- like Harden having an incredible, award-winning season -- there's an equal swing right back -- like Ibaka having a strong, impactful Game 1 in the NBA Finals.
That's the beautiful thing about this debate: the sides are evenly matched. For every argument in favor of Harden, there's an equal for Ibaka. For every point in Ibaka's column, there's an equal point in Harden's. Every time Harden has a great game, Ibaka matches it. Every time Ibaka makes a huge impact, Harden does the same.
But to me, Game 1 went beyond the individual performance to push Ibaka into the lead. It felt like a parable for the Thunder's future and, Hell, the league's future.
Harden might have been the very best two-guard in the NBA this season. I'll accept arguments for Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Manu Ginobili and Wes Johnson, but I'd probably pick Harden. This is no small matter: it was just his third season in the league, he wasn't used particularly well late in games and he played darn near 2,000 minutes in a crunched-up season when his career high was 2,100. He did all of this on a team with the highest scoring small forward and highest scoring point guard in the league. He did it as a sixth man. Harden's performance in 2011-12 foretells of even better future performances. That is no small thing.
Harden can change games with his incredible offensive power. You have to play Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook differently knowing that Harden will come in behind them. He presents the benefit of having an elite third wing without the cost of missing a perimeter-based defensive specialist in the starting five. He's both an excellent shooter and slasher, and he's well-liked by teammates, and he has a great beard, and he fits. All else held equal, 30 out of 30 NBA teams would be thrilled to offer him a maximum contract.
Ibaka finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting after racking up 3.7 blocks per game (tops in the league) and registering a 9.8 block percentage (tops in the league, too). Block percentage is the estimated percentage of opponent attempts blocked by a player when said player is on the floor. One of out every 10 opponent shots when Serge is on the floor is rejected by Serge. I mean, that's not even fair.
Ibaka has three years in, and he won't turn 23 until just before next season. He's the new Dwight Howard in the sense that it's expected he'll win the next 4-5 DPOY awards: he appears to be a transformative defender. What he shares with Dwight is that his defense is not solely about blocked shots; he's not JaVale+. He defends the pick-and-roll really well (especially for a young player), his rotations don't often leave gaping holes at the rim, he doesn't goaltend regularly and -- a most important shift this season, in addition to the block explosion -- he doesn't foul too often.
Serge isn't Howard offensively -- Ibaka has never averaged so many as 10 points per game, even, and while he hits free throws at a much better rate (just about 70 percent for his career), he's nothing like a foul magnet. His offense is almost strictly limited to short face-up shots, putbacks and finishes off of a pass. Howard, though maligned for a perceived lack of refinement, can do much more.
Because of his defensive skills, Ibaka would be a real prize for just about any team in the league. If he reached unrestricted free agency based on his current progression, he could legitimately hold a Decision style proceeding. He'd be that popular with the GMs.
When you chase another team's free agents or trade chips, you can't put all of your eggs in one basket. The Houston Rockets have learned this. The New York Knicks have learned this. When you're chasing talent, you take what you can get, and you adjust. The Thunder have no such problem. They have the talent, and can choose it based on their needs.
Do they need an electric wing scorer? Well, they have Durant and Westbrook, both of whom are locked up, young and at the top of their positional ranks. (I have Durant as the league's No. 2 small forward, and Westbrook as the No. 3 point guard behind Chris Paul and Derrick Rose. I see you, Deron Williams. But Russ is kinda blocking my view right now.) Harden might be No. 1, 2 or 3 among shooting guards too, and that's hard to relinguish, but ...
PERRIN: Why The Thunder Need To Win Now
The Thunder need Ibaka. Without Harden, there's a slight but distinguishable chance that they'd be here in the NBA Finals. You can imagine a scenario in which Durant gets a little better, Westbrook gets a little better, another wing scorer is brought in, and while said wing scorer is loads less powerful than Harden, he's still good enough to give the Thunder what they need on the perimeter behind Durant and Westbrook.
Without Ibaka? No chance. Harden is almost frosting on the team's offense. Ibaka's the cake of the defense. Without him, LeBron James attacks the paint more, Dwyane Wade's relentless attacks are actually successful and everything gets easier for Chris Bosh. Without Harden, the Thunder are sub-optimal. Without Ibaka, the Thunder are fatally flawed.
Dirk Nowitzki had a Jason Terry all along. He needed a Tyson Chandler to win a championship. Durant's got the offensive help he needs in Westbrook. He needs to keep his own Chandler, his Ibaka, to stay at the lead of the championship hunt going forward.
Of course, that decision is at least months away -- maybe a year away. There's no reason to rush it. In fact, it'd make logistic sense for Oklahoma City to lock Harden up to a max extension in the fall, hold off on Ibaka (who'd become a restricted free agent in July 2013), trade Harden after the 2012-13 season for a very high pick, a solid value veteran scorer or stud guard on a rookie deal and retain Ibaka by re-signing him at max or matching a max offer sheet. The Thunder get the benefit of another season with this glorious, unsustainable roster, get something excellent for Harden (instead of a lower return that'd come with a 2013 sign-and-trade) and keep the more important, impactful piece in Ibaka. (And if you think Sam Presti doesn't have already have a blueprint better than this on his desk, you haven't been paying attention.)