Investment in Serge Ibaka, NBA title chase worth the tax cost for Thunder

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Serge Ibaka

Though his positioning is still a work in progress, Serge Ibaka was able to block a league-best 3.65 shots per game last season for the Thunder, who will need his size to remain in NBA title contention. (AP)

The craziest trade rumors of the last few months were those that had Oklahoma City seriously considering flipping James Harden to Charlotte for the No. 2 pick in the draft. I’m sure someone in Oklahoma City’s front office mentioned the general idea, because smart front offices kick around every option. But a team so close to a title does not voluntarily downgrade from an All-Star-level player to a total unknown with one season still to go before that team’s luxury tax concerns actually become real.

The Thunder could trade Harden for a major asset anytime between now and next season’s trade deadline. Why rush the process and cripple a potential 2012-13 championship team with so many variables left to sort out — the potential use of the amnesty provision on Kendrick Perkins; Serge Ibaka’s precise price tag; the projected level of the salary cap and luxury tax for the next three seasons; Harden’s willingness to take a discount; the health and chemistry of this roster, and many others.

Over the last few months, and especially over the last 48 hours, two of those variables have sorted themselves out:

• Ibaka will make $12 million per season thanks to a four-year, $48 million extension Ibaka’s team and Thunder GM Sam Presti hammered out on Presti’s wedding day. (Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news).

• Harden is going to get a max offer sheet in free agency next summer if he wants one.

That leaves Harden to decide how badly he wants max money, and the Thunder’s ownership to decide how much in tax they are willing to pay based upon their own projections of the future tax level and those provided by the league and the players union.

There are, by my count, 13 teams who could carve out something very close to the cap space required for post-rookie deal max contract next summer. Some of those teams don’t have to do any work at all to clear that space; Houston, Dallas, Cleveland, Charlotte, Atlanta and Detroit likely fall into this group. Others have to renounce their rights to important outgoing free agents (San Antonio with Manu Ginobili, Toronto with DeMar DeRozan, Utah with several players), decline various team options (Phoenix with Wesley Johnson, New Orleans with Xavier Henry and Hakim Warrick) or execute several complex moves that may or may not be realistically possible in combination (Orlando, Milwaukee). Take that market in the aggregate, and the need for a shooting guard across that spectrum of teams is probably larger than the need for a defense-first big man on the rise. People around the league agree with something close to unanimity: Harden is getting a max offer if the Thunder don’t offer an equivalent extension before Oct. 31 and Harden decides to hit the open market.

If Harden gets that max deal from Oklahoma City, the Thunder will be paying the tax for at least the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Assuming a max deal for Harden and that Oklahoma City gets the No. 30 pick in each of the next two drafts, the Thunder would be set to have about $75.5 million committed to 10 players in 2013-14 and $77 million committed to the same number of players in 2014-15. Fill out the rest of the roster on the cheap — forget the mid-level exception — and Oklahoma City will be looking at $80 million payrolls in those seasons.

(Note: These projections don’t include Eric Maynor, a valuable back-up point guard who probably will get squeezed here; this is why the Thunder drafted Reggie Jackson, after all).

The tax line is at $70.4 million now, and it will go up as league revenues rise. But most projections have the tax line somewhere around $75 million in the 2015-16, and very solid growth (about 3 percent) would have it jump only to $72.5 million in 2013-14 and $74.6 million in the following season. Note again: These are estimates.

Under the harsh new tax rates that kick in for the 2013-14 — just in time! — the Thunder would be paying a tax bill ranging from $7.5 million to $12.5 million or so, depending on the exact tax level and how much the team’s ownership is willing to spend on the back of the roster.

Is Oklahoma City, the league’s second-smallest market, willing to spend something like $85 million or even $90 million to fill a team?

My hunch is that they are — at least for those two seasons. Deals attached to Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison expire after 2014-15, leaving the Thunder in 2015-16 with about $66.5 million committed to the four stars in and all their draft picks between now and then — and the ability to slide under the tax or nuzzle right up against it. Of course, there are huge unknowns here, including the Thunder’s place in the league’s revenue-sharing system and the financial state of Aubrey McClendon, a minority owner whose energy company (Chesapeake) has come under increased scrutiny for its financial state and internal practices.

Still, you own a team to chase titles, and the Thunder might be willing to swallow hard and pay the tax for two seasons of title-chasing — a precious commodity, really. The use of the amnesty provision on Perkins would be a game-changer, tax-wise, and it will be interesting to see if Perry Jones develops fast enough to at least make Oklahoma City think about going to battle with a three-man big rotation of Jones, Collison and Ibaka, plus flotsam on the bench. It’s a risk, especially with the the Lakers bulking up, but the notion that Perkins is a Dwight Howard stopper became a bit outdated by the end of the 2010-11 season. But Perkins is a valuable post defender who provides depth and the ability for Scott Brooks to play several different sorts of lineups.

And that’s really the last step for these Thunder — the kind of self-discovery the Heat experienced in the second year of their own run. Oklahoma City is still finding the right balance between big and small, a nice dilemma to have and one that stems from Durant’s ability to play power forward in smaller lineups. Maynor’s season-ending knee injury set that process back a bit, but even so, Brooks showed an increased (if relucant) willingness to use Ibaka as the center in small-ball lineups much more often in the playoffs than he did in the regular-season. And in a nice reversal of previous trends, those lineups held up on the defensive glass, per Basketball Value’s data. That is crucial for a team that has ranked below average in defensive rebounding rate for the last two seasons.

Ibaka has been a mediocre defensive rebounder in the NBA, and he’ll have to improve across the board to live up to this $12 million per year price tag. But that’s what you pay for rising young bigs with this kind of potential, and Ibaka is already miles ahead of JaVale McGee and DeAndre Jordan — two bigs who received similar deals over the last year.

Ibaka won’t turn 23 until next month, and he makes big leaps on the court every season. He took nearly twice as many shots out of the pick-and-roll in 2011-12 as he did in the prior season, per Synergy Sports, and developed a nice chemistry with Durant on that play; the Durant/Ibaka pick-and-roll emerged as a built-in second or third option in many of the Thunder’s pet sets. Ibaka shot 46 percent on mid-range jumpers, an elite number for a player at any position; finished nearly 70 percent of his shots at the rim; and flashed an ability late in the season to slip to the foul line, catch, pump fake and drive to the hoop.

Refining that in-between game and generally developing more confidence on offense, and more chemistry with Russell Westbrook, is the next step for Ibaka. He’s never going to be a back-to-the-basket post-up beast, but he doesn’t have to be on this roster. He needs to jack that jumper without hesitation when it’s the right play and learn to make the next productive pass when it isn’t; a big man playing these kind of minutes, surrounded by this kind talent, cannot average 0.4 assists per game.

He also needs to be more of a consistent threat in space below the foul line — the kind of big man with the nimble feet, timing and understanding of space to slip into the right creases at the right times for Westbrook and Durant to find him. And he has to be able to catch in that space and finish non-dunks on the move. That process is happening, and it’s a collective one that involves Oklahoma City’s ball-handlers, too; a wildly disproportionate number of Oklahoma City’s pick-and-rolls ended with the ball-handler shooting, and not the roll man, and the team would do well to find better balance there.

The same improvement is happening on defense, where Ibaka has become a steadier one-on-one defender while still learning the nuances of anchoring an NBA team defense. He still chases too many blocks, removing himself from rebounding position, but he kept his feet better in the post and on perimeter close-outs last season; opposing bigs shot 40 percent against him in the post in 2011-12, after lighting him up for 49 percent shooting the year before, per Synergy.

There is still a ways to go; Ibaka is overrated as a defender, and the fact that he finished No. 2 in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, ahead of Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard (and others), was sort of a joke. Those guys know where to be, and where not to be, all the time; every precise slide and lunge has a purpose and a limit, and closes a hole before the offense can really open it.

The Thunder’s defense, No. 10 in points allowed per possession last season, still allows those holes to open. Ibaka is athletic enough to close them after the fact, and that is an enormously valuable skill. The next step is to prevent them from opening in the first place, and Ibaka — and his teammates — are working on it. You can still catch Ibaka overhelping or misreading a play — lingering too long  up top on a pick-and-roll as his man scurries away, rotating to the wrong guy as opponents swing the ball around, leaping for shot blocks when he should stay in his stance.

But you see less of that now, and that’s scary — and worth paying for.

  • Published On 1:26pm, Aug 20, 2012
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    PeterJackson 7 pts

    Why is Ibaka never going to be an effective back to the basket player?  He is making $12m per year for crying out loud!!  And he is only 23.  If he never develops a post -game, OKC have overpaid for him.


    Aron 5 pts

    Zack - Thank you for another great article. If OKC doesn't win it all this year, I can see them re-sign Eric Maynor at approx $6M per, match any offer to J Harden & trade Russell Westbrook to Orlando for picks.

    riaan.ra 5 pts

     Aron Westbrook is the only slasher on that team, and the best at getting his own shot. There is no way they ever trade him. The constant threat of his penetration is the biggest reason Durant cannot be constantly double teamed.