Sans Russell Westbrook, and left to rely on Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin to assist the undoubtedly exhausted Kevin Durant, the Thunder are no longer in the position of power they hoped to be in against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Oklahoma City has found itself in a 2-1 hole against one of the best defensive teams in the league, and its offense has bordered on anemic. The Thunder have failed to eclipse 100 points in three consecutive games, which is now their longest streak of the season.
To be fair to the Grizzlies, they were 2-1 against the Thunder during the regular season and held them to under 100 points in two of those three contests. It's difficult to score on them. Their rotations are flawless, they guard the three-point shot well and I pity the fool not named Kevin Durant who attempts to attack the rim with Marc Gasol safeguarding the paint.
Still, more was expected of the Thunder. To be more specific, more was expected of Ibaka and Martin.
Through the first three games of the series, Ibaka is averaging 9.7 points and 6.7 rebounds on 30.8 percent shooting. This comes after he averaged a career-high 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds on 57.3 percent shooting during the regular season.
Martin hasn't been much better. He's averaging 14.7 points on 38.1 percent shooting a night. He is knocking down over 40 percent of his three-point attempts, but that has meant very little.
And so, once again, we're left wondering if the Thunder didn't make the wrong decision retaining Ibaka over Harden.
I pondered the answer to this very question while Oklahoma City attempted to stave off an epic meltdown against the Houston Rockets. I concluded that the Thunder made the right decision. If they had to pick one—I still maintain they could have kept both—Ibaka filled a need, and Martin could replace much of Harden's scoring.
To a large extent, I still believe just this. Had the Thunder known that Westbrook would tear his meniscus, of course they would have held onto Harden.
But they didn't know. How could they? No team in the NBA is capable of making those predictions. And you can't build your team in fear. If you did, you'd find a reason not to do just about everything.
In conjunction with not being able to foresee the unpredictable, there were numbers to support my claim. Statistically speaking, the Thunder were better on both ends of the floor this season than they were last, numbers that I won't get into detail with because they're nearly irrelevant here (you can take a gander at them in the above-linked article, though).
Much of Oklahoma City's increased (numerical) success had to do with Durant and Westbrook evolving. Without Harden, the two had to take their games up a notch, a transcendence they may not have undergone had their second-unit safety net not been sent to Houston.
Knowing how well Ibaka (and Martin) had played during the regular season in association with the team's not-so-subtle advancements only served as further proof that the Thunder made the right decision.
As we watch Ibaka play like he ate the bones, though, I'm compelled to reconsider my original stance.
I still believe the Thunder made the right decision based on how they were thinking. They didn't deal Harden because they thought Ibaka had a higher ceiling; they just understood that Ibaka filled a need and Harden was a luxury.
So their flaw wasn't in their logic; it's how they got there. The Thunder chose satisfying a need over a more prolific talent—please don't even attempt to argue that Ibaka has more potential—when they perhaps should have chosen the latter over the former.
Again, Oklahoma City couldn't have predicted that Westbrook would go down. But when dealing with an ultimatum that the Thunder themselves imposed, you have to consider the move from all angles.
From there, you have to ask: Who would you rather build around?
The answer? Harden.
Ibaka is talented, without a doubt. But he's not someone you build your team around. He's a complementary piece who capitalizes off the presence of superstars on the offensive end, but that's not a bad thing.
Very few big men are capable of carrying teams on their own nowadays. The three-point shot has changed things, as have stretch forwards. It's a guard/wing's league now.
Over the course of the regular season, the Thunder were able to withstand the subtle disadvantages that came with being Harden-less. Come the playoffs, when the rotations are shortened and yes, when a top-10 superstar goes down for the season, they can't be cloaked as easily. Or even at all.
With Harden, the Thunder would be in a better position to beat the Grizzlies and contend for a championship than they are now. Harden can't be removed from the offense the way Ibaka can. He creates his own shot and makes plays for his teammates while Ibaka isn't known for doing either.
Ibaka—the league's leading shot-blocker—is more talented defensively, but Oklahoma City isn't known for its defense. The Thunder ranked fourth in defensive efficiency during the regular season, but their success is predicated upon the ability to score. Harden can do that better than Ibaka (and Martin).
Did the Thunder's depth chart need Ibaka more than it did Harden?
Absolutely. And by that account, the Thunder made the right decision choosing Ibaka over Harden.
After watching how the Thunder have—how Ibaka has—struggled in the face of adversity, however, it's become clear that Oklahoma City may have just been providing the right answer to the wrong question.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.
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