Six Pack: Will Presti Pick Harden or Ibaka?
HOOPSWORLD’s Senior NBA Analyst Tommy Beer takes you through his most recent musings on the National Basketball Association in this latest installment of the NBA Six Pack:
1. Difficult Decisions Lie Ahead in Oklahoma City
The Oklahoma City Thunder have as bright a future as any organization in the NBA. Kevin Durant is the most potent scoring force in the entire league and is already a perennial MVP candidate. Oh, and he’s 23 years old. Russell Westbrook is one of the most dynamic and explosive point guards to come into the league in very long time. Westbrook is one of just two players to average over 23 points and five assists this season (LeBron James was the other). And Westbrook is just 23 years old. These two young studs represent the true core and foundation of the Thunder franchise. Accordingly, both Durant and Westbrook are locked up via long-term extensions exceeding $80 million.
However, the extremely intriguing question is which other key pieces will Thunder general manager Sam Presti decide to pair with his two superstars long-term? In particular, will Presti be forced to choose between two of the NBA’s more promising young players: Serge Ibaka and James Harden?
Both Ibaka and Harden can be offered contract extensions once free agency begins on July 1. However, if either player doesn’t ink an extension, they will become restricted free agents in the summer of 2013. Obviously, the Thunder’s preference would be to keep both in OKC, but that may not be a realistic possibility.
During the 2013-14 season, Durant will make $17.8 million. Westbrook will earn $15.6 million that year. Extending those two at max dollars was a no-brainer. However, the third highest-paid player on OKC is Kendrick Perkins. Presti signed Perkins to a $36 million contract extension in March of 2011, and while Presti has been an undeniably brilliant executive and team architect, that is one decision that may come back to bite him. Perkins is due $8.4 million in 2013-14, and $9.2 million the following season. Perk played 27 minutes a night for OKC during the regular season, yet averaged below seven rebounds a game for the first time since 2008 and also shot below 49 percent from the floor for just the second time in his career.
The salary cap this past season was set at $58.2 million and the cap is likely stay put next year. Assuming that number stays stable in the near future, the ramifications of three players accounting for nearly $42 million in cap space are significant.
If Harden or Ibaka are allowed to test the waters of free agency in July of 2013, rest assured they will receive immense interest and major offers from salivating suitors.
Harden is coming off the best season of his brief, but budding, career and was just named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year. He scored in double figures in all but four of his appearances this year and led all reserves in scoring, averaging 16.8 points. Like all great bench players, he was also incredibly efficient, posting a career-high in field-goal percentage (49.1 percent). Durant and Westbrook get the lion’s share of national media attention, but Harden was often a true x-factor for Oklahoma City; the Thunder posted a 14-1 record in the 15 games Harden scored over 20 points. And how about this factoid (courtesy of Yahoo’s Justin Phan): The only six guards to post a higher PER than James Harden in their age-22 season: Chris Paul, Oscar Robertson, Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose and Magic Johnson.
Although Ibaka will never be the equal of Harden offensively, the former brings unparalleled defense and rebounding to the table. Still raw and relatively inexperienced at 22 years of age, the sky is the limit for Ibaka’s defensive prowess. Despite limited playing time, Ibaka led the NBA in blocks – averaging a full 1.5 more rejections than second-place finisher Dwight Howard. In fact, Ibaka averaged a mind-boggling 4.8 blocks per-36 minutes this season. For his career, his per-36 minutes averages are 12.6 points and 10.2 rebounds. He is also shooting 54 percent from the floor for his career, and 70 percent from the free-throw stripe. The upside is undeniable.
Even in today’s NBA, where the new CBA is supposed to dampen spending, both Harden and Ibaka will likely fetch offers up to, and possibly exceeding, $10 million a year. Yes, the Thunder would have “Bird Rights” on both players, but even if Presti was able to pare down the roster (Eric Maynor will also become a RFA next summer and Cole Aldrich has a team option for $3.3 million for 2013) to create enough cap space before hitting the salary “apron,” which essentially works as a hard cap of $74 million; it remains unknown if OKC ownership be willing be venture that far into luxury tax territory. Historically, few “small market” teams have been willing to wade into luxury tax territory.
If, in fact, OKC is forced to choose between Ibaka and Harden, it represents an incredibly intriguing quagmire. For my money, I think I’d lean towards Ibaka. Taking nothing away from Harden, the fact of the matter is Westbrook and Durant will always supply plenty of offense. In order for the Thunder to take that next step and become NBA champions, they’ll need to get crucial, fourth-quarter stops. Losing the NBA’s best young defensive big could be catastrophic.
Presti has been a nearly flawless in his decision making thus far, but his most important decision may be forthcoming. Stay tuned…
2. Melo Shouldn’t Solely Shoulder the Blame
The Knicks wild, roller coaster 2011-12 NBA season came to an abrupt end Wednesday with a loss to the Miami HEAT. New York enters the offseason with an inordinate number of unanswered questions including – but not limited to – who will be the head coach and starting point guard on opening night in October? And while we will take our best shot at answering those questions as early as next week, and in depth over the next few months, I thought it made sense to spend a few paragraphs discussing the controversial Carmelo Anthony as we put a bow on another disappointing season in New York.
The 2011-12 campaign was a whirlwind for Melo. For the better of the last three months, he was barbecued by some in the press and branded, at various times, as selfish, lazy, out-of-shape and a coach-killer. During the height of Linsanity, it was implied by more than a few that the Knicks would actually be better off without Melo on the team. Anthony brought some of this on himself due to an inability to politic with the press, but much of the vitriol from the tabloids was misplaced disgust at the organization itself, not an individual player. Still, as the highest-paid player and face of the franchise, Anthony will always be in the crosshairs.
Even Melo’s most ardent supporters would agree he has flaws as a basketball player. He is a sub-par defender, which is somewhat inexcusable given his length and athleticism. In addition, he doesn’t see the floor all that well and can be an unwilling passer. And his body language often leaves a lot to be desired. I personally took Carmelo to task last season. However, pinning the Knicks recent postseason struggles on Melo’s shoulders (as many have done) is simply unfair and unwarranted.
Melo has been buried in the NY papers as a selfish non-superstar who can’t carry a good team. While Melo is obviously not in the same league as LeBron and a handful of other elite NBA players, Anthony is inarguably one of the league’s best scorers and a dynamic talent. The Knicks’ collective shortcomings inevitably impact the team’s best player. Ignoring the lack of a supporting cast is incredibly shortsighted.
Consider this: During the nine playoff games Melo has played in a Knick uniform, you could make a legitimate argument that Anthony Carter was the most efficient/consistent point guard he has played with. Chauncey Billups lasted three quarters of one game last year before the injury bug bit. Toney Douglas replaced Billups as a starter in Games 2 and 3 versus Boston, but Melo led the team in assists in those contests. Anthony Carter led the Knicks with four assists in Game 4.
This year, with Jeremy Lin sidelined due to knee surgery, an aging Baron Davis tried valiantly to step up before his knee gave out. Going into the series, the hope was rookie Iman Shumpert would handle PG duties in crunch time, but Shump tore his ACL in Game 1 in Miami. With Baron on the shelf, Mike Bibby ended up starting Game 5 – the fourth different starting PG in the Knicks’ nine postseason contests.
Shifting over to shooting guard, the production hasn’t been pretty there either. Last year versus the Celtics, Landry Fields averaged 1.8 points per game, while shooting 20 percent from the floor, 16.7 percent from the free-throw stripe, and 0 percent from three-point land (0-for-4). Fields struggled again in the second half this season, and was generally a non-factor in the HEAT series. J.R. Smith was brought in mid-season, with the hopes that he would supply offensive fireworks off the bench. Unfortunately, Smith was a dud when the Knicks needed him most. Smith hoisted up an astonishing 28 three-pointers and connected on only five (17.9 percent). He finished the series with the same number of turnovers (11) as assists.
These are the shooters the Knicks needed to space the floor in order to create operation room for Melo to go to work. Without another consistent offensive threat, defenses are able to crowd Carmelo and force difficult looks. Without a point guard to penetrate into the paint, draw the defense and dish to open shooters, the disdained and disparaged “Iso-Offense” was often the only option. Without a offensive post presence to dump the ball into down low, Melo was forced to attempt to free himself from fronting defenders all series long (As an aside, Mike Woodson has to catch some criticism for continuously failing to counter James and Shane Battier’s overzealous high-post fronting).
Tyson Chandler was a godsend for the Knicks and a defensive juggernaut, but he is obviously limited offensively. We know about the wild week Amar’e Stoudemire had. Stoudemire ended up with more stitches than field goals. And Steve Novak absolutely disappeared.
When James drove past his defender, he’d kick it out to Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. Or even Mike Miller or Shane Battier, who both hit plenty of open threes in the series. Melo simply didn’t have that luxury. Thus, pointing to Anthony’s shot attempts or shooting percentage as proof of an incomplete or selfish player ignores reality.
Despite the aforementioned impediments to success, in the nine postseason games he has participated in as a Knick, Melo is still averaging 27.0 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
Melo isn’t the primary problem; in fact he’s part of the solution. Surrounded by a more accomplished and competent supporting cast, the results might be different. The challenge for Glen Grunwald is figuring a way to add productive pieces despite limited cap space…
3. Quote of the Week:
Courtesy of the loquacious Kevin Garnett: “I don’t know if you guys follow astrology and all the things with the moon and stuff, and I think the moon was the biggest that it’s ever been the other day. I don’t know where everybody lives here. On my side of town, I didn’t really get to see it, but I do have pictures of it. When Ray missed a free throw the other day, it was like seeing that moon. It was like you couldn’t believe it, because you see what he puts into his craft and you see why he is who he is and the reputation that he’s earned.” (hat tip to WEEI.com’s Greenstreet blog)
4. Tweets of the Week:
- @BronXoo: Best part of this Amar’e .GIF is Battier reaching out for a hand, then grabbing STAT’s shorts: http://bit.ly/KMZISF #CantStopWatching
- @si_vault: Larry Bird and Julius Erving choke eachother during a 1984 Celtics-Sixers game: http://t.co/OWHvub57
- @TheWurdsmith: Paul Pierce’s beard looks like he put glue on his face & rolled around on a barber shop’s floor
- @IAMAGM: James Harden, pink blazer w/ bow tie swag http://instagr.am/p/Kdcj6ytlSD/
- @KDonhoops: When Ray Allen was in the dunk contest I used Netscape.
5. Dunks of the Week:
* Ken Faried hammers it home:
6. Elias Sports Bureau Stats of the Week:
From Elias: The 76ers defeated the Bulls, 79-78, and won their opening-round series in six games. Philadelphia was only 29-for-73 (.397) from the field and was out-rebounded, 56-33. No other team in NBA history won a playoff game in which it recorded a field-goal percentage under 40.0 percent and had at least 20 fewer rebounds than its opponent. It was the third game in the series in which the winning team scored fewer than 80 points, tying a shot clock-era record. There were also three such games in the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals between the Pistons and Pacers, a series Detroit won in six games.
* Kevin Garnett had 28 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots on Thursday night, helping the Celtics eliminate the Hawks in the first round. Garnett was the first player to reach those three statistical levels in a series-clinching win since Shaquille O’Neal registered 28 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks for the Heat in Game Six of the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals versus the Pistons.
* Ty Lawson scored 32 points and handed out six assists in the Nuggets’ win against the Lakers, his third game with 25 or more points and at least five assists in the series. The only other player since the 2004 playoffs who had three 25/5 (points/assists) games versus the Lakers in one postseason series was Deron Williams in the 2008 Western Conference Semifinals.
* LeBron James had 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists — all team highs — in the Heat’s series-clinching win over the Knicks on Wednesday night. It was the 20th time in his pro career that James led his team outright in points, rebounds and assists in a playoff game. That’s by far the highest such total for any player in NBA history. In fact the only other players who did that in at least 10 games are Larry Bird (13) and Tim Duncan (11).
* Darren Collison did not start a game for the Pacers in their just-concluded series win over the Magic, but he contributed 23 assists and only one turnover. The last player with 23 or more assists and no more than one turnover in a postseason series was John Paxson for the Bulls against the 76ers in the second round in 1990 (26 assists, 1 turnover).