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Berry Tramel  


Oklahoma City Thunder: Finishing the Ibaka/Harden debate

by Berry Tramel Published: October 31, 2012

Remember back in July, when we wondered if the Thunder would sign Serge Ibaka or James Harden or both or neither? There was much debate about which one the Thunder would keep if it had to choose.

Well, the answer was, the Thunder tried to keep both. The Thunder signed Ibaka to a four-year, $49-million contract and offered Harden more than that. I don’t take that to mean the Thunder valued Harden more. I take that to mean staying in OKC meant more to Ibaka.

But what is the answer? Is a Hardenless future, but with Ibaka, better for the Thunder? Or is a Sergeless future, but with Harden, better?

There are several ways to look at the question, but one way — maybe the best way — is replacement ease. How easily is either replaced. And the trade answered that question clearly.

Harden was easier to replace. In fact, the Thunder, on paper, has already done it. Kevin Martin doesn’t seem like a Thunder kind of player. Poor defensive reputation, never really played in a meaningful season. Developed into a really good player in Sacramento after the Kings slid into irrelevancy. Went to Houston, which was fighting to stay afloat, but sort of got cast adrift in the Rockets’ remaking.

And truthfully, who knows if Martin will fit in wearing Thunder blue? But the data is hard to argue with. Martin is a very close clone of Harden, production-wise.

Using statistics based on 36 minutes per game, here are the similarities of Harden’s and Martin’s career statistics:

Points: Harden 17.1, Martin 21.2. Harden really hit his stride the last two seasons, while Martin has had six seasons as an elite NBA scorer. I don’t think there’s four points difference in their productivity, but still.

Field-goal percentage: Harden .444; Martin .443. Virtually the same.

3-point percentage: Harden .370; Martin .377. Very close.

Foul shooting percentage: Harden .835; Martin .865. This is getting eerie.

Foul shooting: Harden 4.9-5.8; Martin 6.6-7.6. Look at that again. Harden is an aggressive, driving, multi-dimensional player who seems to get a lot of foul shots. Almost six attempts per game. And Martin gets significantly more.

Rebounds: Harden 4.6; Martin 4.0. Harden is a stronger player.

Assists: Harden 3.3; Martin 2.4. Harden clearly is the better playmaker.

I think OKC will miss Harden. But how much? If Martin is anywhere close to the player he has been throughout his career, the Thunder’s offense doesn’t figure to drop off to any significant degree.

Sam Presti decided he wasn’t going to put the Thunder in the position of losing Harden without getting something in return, he shopped around for a deal and in addition to the equivalent of three first-round draft picks (Jeremy Lamb and two futures, one in the lottery), he got a player who has produce virtually the same, if not more, than Harden.

But who in the NBA is anything like Serge Ibaka? First of all, no one blocks shots like Serge — his 3.65 blocks per game ran away from the rest of the league. JaVale McGee was second, at 2.16. McGee might be the most similar physical talent to Ibaka, except McGee is a goober whose offensive arsenal is limited to dunking. Ibaka has become a solid 17-foot shooter; just ask the Spurs, against whom he went 11-for-11 in a Western Conference Finals game.

Next on the blocked shots list last season were Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, Andrew Bogut, Roy Hibbert, Andrew Bynum and Marc Gasol. Of that group, Hibbert and Gasol can knock down jumpers. But both are traditional centers that can bang inside with the best of them but can’t run the floor. They really aren’t anything like Ibaka.

Maybe the most similar player to Ibaka is Charlotte’s Bismack Biyombo. He’s 6-foot-9, athletic, from the Congo, a shot blocker, though his 1.8 blocks per game last season were basically half of Ibaka’s. If Biyamo develops an outside jumper, he could be in the Serge mode.

But there’s really nobody like Ibaka in the entire league. You can find a shot blocker, I suppose. Samuel Dalembert or somebody. But not someone who also is going to be an offensive threat, which is what Ibaka is becoming.

The truth is, you don’t want to be without Harden or Ibaka. The Thunder would take Harden over K-Mart. And if you’re asking which you would rather keep, if you had to pick just one, Harden is a suitable answer. The chemistry and fraternity he had with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was rare and charming. But the question has been answered. It’s much easier to replace James Harden than it would be to replace Serge Ibaka.



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by Berry Tramel
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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