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The Long-Term Future Of The Thunder

With the development of Serge Ibaka and James Harden to go along with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder have become one of the best teams in the NBA. The bad news? They’re not going to be able to pay all of them.

Durant and Westbrook have already received maximum contract extensions, and over the next two years, Harden and Ibaka will be up for lucrative new deals as well.

Harden, at only 22 years old, is an athletic 6’5, 220 five-tool shooting guard with a 6’10 wingspan. There are no holes in his game: he can create his own shot (shooting 49% from the floor), shoot from the perimeter (shooting 39% from beyond the arc), create shots for others (averaging 4.3 assists and 2.5 turnovers), defend both backcourt positions and rebound (4.6 per game).

With both Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant over 30, Harden is the future of the shooting guard position. The only comparable young player is Eric Gordon, but he’s missed nearly the entire season with a knee injury. When Harden is a restricted free agent at the end of next season, there could be a number of attractive young teams (the Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, Washington Wizards) with the cap room to offer him a max contract.

Ibaka, at only 22 years old, is an athletic 6’10, 235 power forward with a 7’4 wingspan who combines two valuable skills: elite shot-blocking and the ability to knock down a mid-range jumper. There are very few 6’10+ big men with the athletic ability to protect an NBA rim; there are even fewer who aren’t a liability offensively.

To see how attractive he will be in free agency, all you have to do is look at what centers were getting last off-season: Nene ($67 million), Tyson Chandler ($60 million), Marc Gasol ($55 million), DeAndre Jordan ($44 million). Kwame Brown even received a $7 million one-year deal!

The new CBA, with its punitive luxury tax penalties, is designed precisely to ensure that teams can’t afford to pay four players near maximum salaries. Leaving aside whether it’s actually in the best interests of the NBA to break up the Thunder, that leaves Oklahoma City with a tough decision: do they keep Harden or Ibaka?

While Harden has much better statistics, Ibaka is a more important piece. A championship team needs length and athleticism at the rim, and there’s no one else on their roster who can replace him.

Harden, in contrast, is a luxury. He’s the best passer of their three young perimeter stars, but having that many ball dominant players is a bit of a zero-sum game, as there’s only one basketball to go around. Giving him the ball at the end of games takes it out of the hands of Durant and Westbrook. The Thunder didn’t invest $170 million in their two All-NBA players to turn them into decoys.

However, Oklahoma City would still need to replace his bench production, as well as the below market price they currently receive it at. There’s only one place to do that: the top of the NBA Draft.

If Gerald Wallace is worth a first-round pick with only Top-3 protections, what would Harden fetch on the trading block? There could be two teams with multiple lottery picks in 2012: the Utah Jazz (who have the Golden State Warriors pick if it falls out of the Top-7) and the Portland Trail Blazers (who dealt Wallace to the Nets). Even in one of the most loaded drafts in a decade, as long as neither had the first overall pick, both would probably be willing to deal their two first-rounders, as well as a 2014 one, for Harden.

Such a deal would setup Oklahoma City well into the next decade.

Ever since the publication of “Moneyball”, every team in professional sports has been trying to exploit “market inefficiencies”. However, Michael Lewis’ book, while extremely entertaining, buried the lead: Oakland was able to field a great with a low payroll because they had a bumper crop of young All-Stars making relative peanuts. In professional sports, the greatest market inefficiency is, and will always be, the ability to accurately scout and develop talent.

Over the last few years, the Oklahoma City front office has proven they are well ahead of the curve in terms of drafting philosophy. Anyone could have picked Durant, but Westbrook (No. 4 in 2008), Harden (No. 3 in 2009) and Ibaka (No. 24 in 2009) weren’t no brainers at the time. Even their misses -- Jeff Green (No. 5 in 2007), Byron Mullens (No. 24 in 2008) and Cole Aldrich (No. 11 in 2010) -- could still develop into usable 6’9+ players. In an industry where Jared Sullinger is considered a lottery pick, there are plenty of inefficiencies left to exploit.

More intriguingly, there is a bumper crop of young shooting guards in the 2012 draft, at least four of them with All-Star ceilings: Terrence Ross (Washington), Jeremy Lamb (UConn), Bradley Beal (Florida) and Dion Waiters (Syracuse). With a top shooting guard guaranteed to fall, the Thunder could use their other lottery pick to gamble on an extremely talented 6’11+ project like Andre Drummond (UConn) or Perry Jones III (Baylor).

No one is going to be perfect in the draft, but the Thunder have had a much higher success rate than most of the league. Why not give themselves as many chances as possible to use their competitive advantage?

Dealing Harden would lower their chances of winning a championship in 2013, but it could open up a much larger title window. Let’s say they hit on one of the two picks they could acquire in 2012. In four years, they could spin this cycle forward again, flipping elite young talent looking for a payday into more elite young talent on cost-controlled salaries.

Oklahoma City has one of the NBA’s most forward-thinking front offices. If they leverage Harden’s contract situation correctly, they could get so far ahead of the rest of the league their competition will never be able to catch up.

 

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