The Thunder have made rapid progress toward an NBA championship in recent years, and are held up as a model franchise around the league. Yet the cloud hanging over the team after its trip to the NBA Finals this past June concerns the futures of James Harden and Serge Ibaka, two young cornerstones in line for significant raises soon. As Luke Adams pointed out when he looked at the prospect of an extension for Harden, the Thunder would be committing more than $60MM for four players if they gave maximum extensions to both Harden and Ibaka, since Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are also signed to maximum deals. The volume of chatter about Harden seems to indicate GM Rob Hennigan and company are giving him priority, but clearly they'd like to find a way to keep them both.
The contribution Ibaka makes to the team isn't as readily apparent in box scores as what Harden does, though Ibaka was far and away the league leader in blocks per game last year. His average of 3.7 BPG was 68% better than the 2.2 submitted by JaVale McGee, the league's second-best shot blocker in 2011/12. No active player has ever blocked more shots per game in a season than Ibaka did last year. All those rejections led to a first-team All-Defensive selection, and helped him to the league's 11th best defensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference. Perhaps most remarkable about his blocks is that he got them in just 27.2 minutes a game, much less court time than what most key contributors see. Even though Harden comes off the bench, he averaged 31.4 MPG, significantly more than Ibaka, who starts.
Ibaka might be pressed into longer minutes if the team unloads Kendrick Perkins and the $17.63MM he's owed between 2013/14 and 2014/15. Doing so would make it easier for the Thunder to squeeze in both Harden and Ibaka, though it's worth asking why the Thunder would be so anxious to get rid of someone who plays a role similar to Ibaka's. Both are Perkins and Ibaka are defensively oriented, offensively challenged post players. Perkins is five years older and doesn't possess nearly the athleticism of Ibaka, but he's sturdier and able to protect the basket, as evidenced by his 2.0 blocks per game for the Celtics in 2008/09. Factor in the presence of Nick Collison, who's signed to a team-friendly contract through 2015 and is another big man who specializes in the game's subtleties, and it seems the Thunder have an inside player to spare.
Ibaka is likely to receive a maximum offer sheet as a restricted free agent next summer if the Thunder don't extend him by the October 31st deadline, if for no other reason than his potential. Ibaka arrived in the NBA with underdeveloped skills but has quickly picked up the nuances of the game during his three-year career, his PER rising from 15.2 as a rookie, to 17.7 in 2010/11, and to 19.0 last season. At 22, he still has the capacity for marked improvement. Just how much farther he can go is a mystery, and last season there was even evidence of regression. Ibaka's scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage and free throw percentage were all down last season, and his turnovers were up.
The Thunder, who've nurtured and monitored his development every day for the last three years, probably have as much of an idea about what he can do as anyone. There's motivation for the team to try to save a few million dollars with an extension this summer, since Ibaka might want to take the guaranteed money on the table and hedge against injury, poor play and other uncertainty. Yet if the Thunder have any inkling that Ibaka's growth as a player is about to level off, they might want to let him play out the season and take their chances with him as a free agent. If they can extend Harden for less than the maximum this summer, they'd already have a little money saved, and if Ibaka has an outstanding 2012/13, they'll have time to decide what to do with Perkins and make other moves to clear room in preparation to re-sign Ibaka for the max. If Ibaka falters or levels off, their patience would go down as yet another shrewd move by one of the league's most well-regarded front offices.