The Oklahoma City Thunder took a big step toward sticking around as an NBA championship contender.
The Thunder and general manager Sam Presti still face difficult decisions in the team's quest to remain a title threat for the long haul after reaching the NBA Finals last season, but reaching a contract extension with blocks leader Serge Ibaka is certainly a good start.
Ibaka came to terms on the deal on Saturday as the Thunder locked up another key member of their nucleus while also putting into question whether the small-market team can afford to keep Sixth Man of the Year James Harden beyond next season..
Ibaka posted on Twitter that he was happy for the chance to play for the Thunder for five more years. Presti didn't provide details of the contract, citing team policy, but Yahoo! Sports first reported that the deal is for four additional years and $48 million.
"At 23 years old (by the time next season starts), we really do expect his best basketball to be in front of him," Presti said in a conference call, hours before his wedding.
Presti dismissed the notion that Ibaka's signing means that Harden's departure is inevitable. But with more than $50 million committed per season to All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and starting center Kendrick Perkins, there is not much room left in the budget for Harden, who earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team that won gold in London.
Ibaka played for Spain's silver-medal winning Olympic team. Both he and Harden were eligible for extensions to their rookie contracts for the first time this summer and were set to become free agents after next season.
"We're going to continue our conversations with James. We very much value him," Presti said. "We want him to be a part of our organization moving forward. We're excited that he's a member of the Thunder and we're hopeful that he'll be with us for years moving forward."
To make that happen, Oklahoma City would likely have to go over the salary cap — set at about $58 million for next season — and pay a luxury tax or make other moves, such as using the amnesty clause to erase Perkins' contract.
The Thunder have already let veteran free agents Nazr Mohammed and Royal Ivey sign elsewhere, and Derek Fisher remains unsigned. Backup point guard Eric Maynor, who missed most of last season due to a knee injury, also would become a free agent after next season.
"There's still a commitment for us to try to find a way to make it work for everybody, but we know there's going to be some difficult decisions that have to be made," Presti said. "We're looking forward to trying to figure those things out, and having Serge in place is certainly a benefit for our organization moving forward knowing that we have another core player that will be with us for the foreseeable future."
Ibaka was the No. 24 pick in the draft in 2008, the same year Presti selected Westbrook. A native of the Republic of Congo, Ibaka remained overseas for a year before joining the Thunder and developing into a defensive stopper.
He led the NBA with 198 blocks in the 2010-11 season and finished second in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year last season after recording a league-best 241 — a franchise record 3.65 per game.
"He's come a long way in a short amount of time, but I've seen a lot of hard work that's gone into that on his behalf, and that gives us confidence that he's going to continue to work at it," Presti said.
Ibaka has steadily improved his offensive game, adding a mid-range jumper while starting to develop effective post moves. But he's best known for his defensive impact, particularly after blocking at least 10 shots in three games last season — once as part of a triple-double.
"I think with Serge, he does so many things," Presti said. "Obviously, his shot-blocking is a statistic that's most pointed to because it's objective, because it's measurable, but there's a lot of things he does for us in terms of just, I would say, deterring shots.
"He really helps our pick-and-roll defense and bails us out a lot of times."