June 16, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden (left) and power forward Serge Ibaka (right) during practice before game three of the 2012 NBA finals against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

NBA Free Agency: Serge Ibaka’s extension and how it affects James Harden

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Coming into this summer the Oklahoma City Thunder were faced with the task of finding out a way to keep their young core of players together for the future. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook already locked up through 2016, the attention turned to James Harden and Serge Ibaka.

Harden and Ibaka had just finished their third seasons in the NBA and now became eligible for extensions. If the Thunder were not to extend either of them, they would become restricted free agents next summer.

The Thunder announced today that they had agreed to a 4-year, $48 million extension with Ibaka. That’s a good amount of money to invest in Ibaka but considering the contracts being handed out to other power forwards in the league, the Thunder probably came away with a good deal. Ibaka has the kind of potential that could have drawn a max-offer sheet from another team next summer if it came to that.

Harden will undoubtedly receive a max-offer sheet if he is a restricted free agent next summer. That was made pretty clear when Eric Gordon signed a 4-year, $58 million offer sheet with the Phoenix Suns this summer that the New Orleans Hornets matched.

The Thunder don’t want to have to pay Harden quite that much if they can help it. Consider that Nicolas Batum signed a 4-year, $45 million contract this summer. One has to believe Harden is worth more than him and should get at least what Ibaka got and probably more.

If the Thunder extend Harden for around that amount, they will have $55-65 million tied up per season in Durant-Westbrook-Harden-Ibaka through 2016. Right now the salary cap is just over $58 million with the luxury tax threshold at $70.3 million. In the new CBA, tax penalties for having a team salary over the luxury tax are very harsh and even harsher for repeat offenders, which the Thunder would likely be in 2015 and 2016.

Because of all this, there is some thought that the Thunder are maybe choosing Ibaka over Harden by extending him today and doing it before Harden.

I don’t believe this is true and still believe that keeping Harden is the No. 1 priority for GM Sam Presti and this franchise. The Thunder won’t have to worry about the luxury tax next season if they extend Harden and there is even a chance they could avoid it or at least barely go over it in 2013-14 especially if they amnesty Kendrick Perkins, who is owed nearly $8.5 million that season.

The Thunder players often talk about sacrifice with this team. Harden most notably brought up the word in his exit interviews after the NBA Finals. Ibaka is sacrificing some money by agreeing to the contract he did today. He’s making just $3 million more than JaVale McGee over four years and is making the same amount per season as Kris Humphries. Ibaka would have been worth much more next summer if he became a restricted free agent.

Harden will have to sacrifice too and that means probably taking less than what Gordon got and probably settling for a number very close to what Ibaka got. Maybe Harden will sign for four years, $50 million or four years, $55 million, which is what Rajon Rondo signed for back in 2009 with Boston. That sounds about right.

I think that Thunder fans should not worry about Harden’s future with the team now. Ibaka getting his extension today simply makes it more clear how devoted the Thunder organization is to the team they have right now. They are going to go all-in on Harden and pay some tax penalties if they have to.

Presti came to the agreement with Ibaka on the same weekend that he is getting married. We’ll have to wait at least a few days then until Harden and OKC reach a deal, but I think it happens sooner than later.

Tags: Contract Extension James Harden Kevin Durant Luxury Tax Oklahoma City Thunder Russell Westbrook Sam Presti Serge Ibaka

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