The primary message from the trades for Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed is this: the Thunder had to get better defensively on the interior to make any kind of playoff run.
But the underlying message is this: the Thunder is showing its belief in Serge Ibaka and James Harden.
The new-look Thunder rotation means that Ibaka almost surely will start at power forward. The Ibaka Era has begun. He will become the new pick’n pop partner for Russell Westbrook, a position vacated by Nenad Krstic. Ibaka has proven to be a solid shooter from 17 feet. His interior defense needs work, but he won’t be playing a lot of center with Perkins, Mohammed and Nick Collison around. In fact, Ibaka’s shot blocking might increase with a big load in the middle wearing a Thunder jersey.
Meanwhile, Harden’s role absolutely increases, in two ways. His scoring will have to increase. The Thunder took a scoring jolt; Green averaged 15.2 points a game. Krstic averaged 7.6. Krstic’s points weren’t important, though how he scored his points were — on the perimeter, which opened the driving lanes for Westbrook. Harden, averaging 10.6 points a game, goes from the Thunder’s No. 4 scoring option to No. 3.
But Harden also will be asked to play bigger at times. Look at the new Thunder roster. Plenty of big men. Plenty of point guards. Plenty of shooting guards. And no one who is a natural to back up Kevin Durant.
Until the last couple of games, when Daequan Cook was inserted into the rotation on a limited basis and coach Scotty Brooks went with five reserves for small amounts of time, either Durant or Green were on the court almost always. When Brooks would use his backups — Collison, Ibaka, Eric Maynor and Harden — as a unit, he usually started out with Green as their leader, then would substitute Durant for Green.
Now, there is no backup to Durant. No Green to slide over. Which means Brooks will go with a three-guard lineup, and that means more minutes for Harden, who has averaged 25.8 a game. I think Harden will start playing 30 minutes a game.
Brooks will protect Harden. He won’t ask him to guard Carmelo Anthony or somebody like that. Not for any length of time. That duty will fall to Thabo Sefolosha, if necessary. But overall, Harden’s role will increase.
Ibaka and Harden have shown they are ready to ascend to the next level. Their play has gotten much more consistent in recent weeks. Harden scored 16 points against the Spurs on 5-of-9 shooting. Ibaka had 15 rebounds. Ibaka is the team’s leading rebounder, with 7.1 per game.
Both Harden and Ibaka are 21 years old. Westbrook and Durant are 22. We knew that Durant and Westbrook are the franchise cornerstones. Now we know that the Thunder has great trust in Ibaka and Harden. Their time has come.