After a discouraging July that made the Thunder feel like signing both James Harden and Serge Ibaka to contract extensions, some good news arrived Wednesday. Denver signed JaVale McGee to a four-year, $44-million contract. That is good news because it wasn’t four years, $59 million.
The market price for big men has gone kooky in the NBA, so the idea that Ibaka might could be kept for below $10 million grew increasingly dim. And it remains so. But after the rash of signings the first two weeks of free agency, it appeared both Harden and Ibaka could command max contracts — in that $59 million range. And they still could.
But McGee’s contract is a little more sane, and here’s where it’s interesting. McGee probably is the NBA’s most statistically-similar player to Ibaka.
Because of Ibaka’s shot blocking prowess, no player is a true likeness, but McGee comes closest. Ibaka’s 3.65 blocks per game led the NBA by a mile. McGee was runnerup, at 2.16. Dwight Howard was next at 2.15. Ibaka is out-blocking everyone by at least 11/2 blocks per game.
And there are other differences in McGee and Ibaka. McGee is a true center, at 7-foot. Ibaka is a classic power forward. McGee does most of his scoring at the basket. Ibaka is an excellent shooter from the 17-foot range. McGee has a history of being a goofball, though we’ll see if that was inspired by the Washington Wizards culture or not; McGee’s half-season in Denver was promising. Meanwhile, Ibaka is nothing but a solid citizen.
But their numbers are very close. Here’s the first four seasons for McGee, going from most recent back, compared to Ibaka’s first three years:
Points per game: McGee 11.3, 10.1, 6.4, 6.5; Ibaka 9.1, 9.9, 6.3. McGee scores a little bit more.
Minutes per game: McGee 25.2, 27.8, 16.1, 15.2; Ibaka 27.2, 27.0, 18.1. Incredibly similar. Both McGee and Ibaka have played about the same minutes as the other throughout their careers.
Blocks per game: McGee 2.2, 2.4, 1.7, 1.0; Ibaka 3.7, 2.4, 1.3. Before Ibaka turned into Bill Russell this past season, virtually identical.
Rebounds per game: 7.8, 8.0, 4.1, 3.9; Ibaka 7.5, 7.6, 5.4. Again, close, close, close.
Field-goal percentage: .556, .550, .508, .494; Ibaka .535, .543, .543. McGee a little better, but remember, he’s not shooting from outside. At least he’s not supposed to.
So anyway, that at least gives the Thunder some foundation to work with. McGee is a true center, which increases his value. Ibaka is younger, 20 months younger. He turns 23 in September. McGee turned 24 in January. So Ibaka’s upside is bigger. The Thunder offers Ibaka the chance to be part of a special run of championship contention, which the Nuggets can’t match.
Add it all up, and you could argue that if McGee is worth $11 million a year, Ibaka is somewhere in the neighborhood. I’ve been telling you that anything over $20 million a year combined for Harden and Ibaka is going to make things tough on OKC, but if they can get Ibaka for $11 million, a bullet might be bitten.