The Inbounds: The commonly sensible signing of Serge Ibaka

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I’m not known as the biggest Serge Ibaka guy. I have an analytic relationship with the Oklahoma City Thunder that too closely mirrors that of an indie rock fan in its obnoxiousness. In short, I saw the jump coming in the early months of 2010 when they started the leap to contention and was huge on them, so now I think their early work was better before they got popular. This is, of course, nonsense, they’re a much better team now but something was lost in that first year of exploration as it is with jazz music, gin, a new city’s restaurant scene and teenage sexuality.

So I tend to get a little exhausted at the superlatives thrown at Ibaka. When he took second in Defensive Player of the Year, an award I spent a great deal of time thinking about as part of my gig, I nearly blew a gasket. The nice thing about Ibaka is you don’t actually have to pump fake, because as soon as you’ve thought about it, he’s in the air. Nobody else in the league takes so many points off the board with blocks and puts them back on with goaltends. (OK< that joke’s weak because we all know JaVale McGee is the answer there.) I’ve got a million of them.

So surely I’m ready to roast OKC for, at the very least, putting the possibility of losing James Harden on the table, and paying Ibaka upwards of $48 million over four years, right?

Nope.

The Thunder made the right call, and it’s one that reflects their approach as an organization. Now, there’s every reason to think that keeping Harden is nowhere near off the table. It is still very much possible that Harden remains a Thunder, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Presti quietly announced it on Monday on his way to his honeymoon. But even if this move lead them to terminate their relationship with Harden in the short and long-term, it would be the right one. Consider the following:

  • The areas in which Ibaka struggles, namely face-up defense, tactical decision-making, and over-pursuit of the weakside block, those are all elements which project to improve as he gets older. Even with a loss of athleticism as he adds more muscle and transitions to bulk defender, his aggressiveness with a smarter set of principles translates to more success. He’s a smart player now. When he adds experience and wisdom, his value raises considerably. He’ll be 26 when this contract expires, just scraping that surface and still as athletic as ever.
  • Harden, comparatively, relies on sharp shooting, crafty play, and a playmaking ability. He’ll improve. He’ll be terrific. But there’s only so much better he can get. His game isn’t predicated on athleticism (though he’s athletic). What makes Harden remarkable is his almost instinctive understanding of how to make plays which take players sometimes nearly two decades to learn. But that also means he’s not going to add that element to a natural set of skills. Harden’s already a star. He’s arrived. And he’ll improve. This isn’t to diminish Harden’s ability, but to simply acknowledge that Ibaka can grow to have more of an impact and in this league, you pay for potential.
  • Stretch fours are the leading cause of death for teams. The Celtics would be a shambled pile of bones if Kevin Garnett (and to an extent Brandon Bass) didn’t keep them afloat. Chris Bosh was lethal to Oklahoma City (I know, I know, again, see the first point on him improving). Having a player who’s not so big that he can drift beyond the paint to defend causes all sorts of issues for the opponent. Ibaka’s athleticism and frame lets him guard the beasts and cover the ones that victimize through spacing. It’s a big plus, compared to a standard-sized shooting guard with limited lateral quickness. Oh, and have I mentioned that Ibaka pays Pau Gasol well?
  • Here’s a list of the best power forwards who played at least 20 minutes per game last season at shooting from 16-23 feet: Nick Collison, Dirk Nowitzki, Brandon Bass, Kevin Garnett, David West, Serge Ibaka. Now, Collison and Ibaka had the least attempts of those players and fit a vastly different role. But the point is that no matter how irritating it may be to Spurs fans or anyone else, the shooting from mid-range isn’t a fluke. Ibaka can hit that. He’s a player who defends as he does, and can finish with the big dunk, and can hit the mid-range shot.
  • And maybe the biggest reason? The rule change the NBA is aiming for to adopt FIBA-style rules for goaltending. Under the new rules, as soon as that sucker hits rim, it’s fair game. So a lot of those goaltends are going to shift to legal blocks. Ibaka’s timing and athleticism means he can challenge with more abandon under those rules and that’s not insignificant. If those kinds of players become premium based on how the rule affects play, something we really don’t know yet, it would have a huge impact on his value.

At $12 million he’s still making less than Nene. He’s making just more than JaVale McGee. It was a reasonable market value for the player’s value without getting a steal that would leave him happy or handing him a massive contract to handcuff the Thunder.

Ibaka’s signing is less about who he’s been, but about who he could be. And even as the Thunder move very firmly into the “now’ period of their ascension, they’re still looking down the line. What could be more “Thunder” than that?

PBT Podcast: All-Star starters mock draft, picking reserves

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The votes are in, and LeBron James and Stephen Curry are your All-Star captains.

For the first time in NBA All-Star history, that means they are picking their own teams, playground style, first from the pool of starters, then the pool of reserves. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports take on the roles of LeBron and Curry and pick their All-Star starters, from James Harden through Kyrie Irving.

Then the pair gets into who should be the All-Star Game reserves — and choosing among the Western Conference guards is brutal. Do they leave out Damian Lillard? Lou Williams? Klay Thompson? And that’s not even getting into Paul George being a bubble All-Star in a deep West.

Kurt and Dan break it all down, plus talk some Kemba Walker trade scenarios.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Aaron Gordon forgoes desperation attempt to win, sinks halfcourt shot instead (video)

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The Magic were in dire straights near the end of their game against the Cavaliers last night. Orlando trailed 104-103 with 0.2 seconds and a jump ball to be tossed at center court. By rule, the Magic didn’t have time to catch-and-shoot, let alone recover the jump ball then shoot. Aaron Gordon had to tip the jump ball through the hoop from halfcourt – nearly impossible, but technically possible.

Instead, Gordon grabbed the jump ball – a violation – then sank a halfcourt shot. What an ironic end.

Cleveland then harmlessly inbounded the ball to seal the win.

Can Kemba Walker save the sinking Hornets? He doesn’t want to jump the ship he’s (barely) keeping afloat

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DETROIT – Around this time last year, Kemba Walker‘s reputation peaked.

The season prior, he led Charlotte to its first playoff-game wins since the franchise reemerged as the Bobcats. The Hornets were on pace to make the playoff again, which would have been their first back-to-back postseason appearances in the second Charlotte era. And Walker made his first All-Star team.

While basking in his personal and team success, Walker found one downer: The NBA moved the All-Star game from his home arena to New Orleans due to North Carolina’s anti-gay law.

“It would have been really special if this had been in Charlotte,” Walker said.

The Hornets have gone south since.

They stumbled in the second half and missed the playoffs last season. They’re even worse this season, 18-25 and 11th in the Eastern Conference. As a result, Walker’s stock has tanked. He’s treated as a fringe All-Star candidate at best.

Yet – as trade speculation emerges – Walker has come to a conclusion similar to his a year ago: His experience would be more special in Charlotte.

“I would definitely be devastated if I was to get traded,” Walker said. “I do want to be here.”

Walker is one of the most intriguing cases as the trade deadline approaches. The 27-year-old is earning $12 million this season and is due the same salary next season before his contract expires. It’s not clear the Hornets would trade him. It’s not clear they should trade him.

Charlotte is bad around Walker, not because of him. The Hornets have played better with Walker on the floor (+5.2 points per 100 possessions) than the Cavaliers have with LeBron James (+0.3), Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo (+3.7) and Pelicans with Anthony Davis (+5.1).

Put another way, using Pythagorean win percentage, Charlotte has played like 55-win team when Walker plays and a 12-win team when he doesn’t. That 43-win-pace drop is the fourth largest league-wide (minimum: 20 games):

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The Hornets have struggled with Michael Carter-Williams at backup point guard and even more with rookie Malik Monk (a natural shooting guard) in the role while Carter-Williams was hurt. Backup point guard was a glaring weak spot last season, too, and Charlotte signed Carter-Williams to stop the bleeding.

But he was a budget choice. The Hornets’ mid-level exception sits mostly unused as they duck the luxury tax.

Using starting shooting guard Nicolas Batum as the primary playmaker when Walker sits has worked better than most alternatives. Staggering those two more often could right Charlotte.

However, even if Batum is the solution to the micro problem, he’s central to the macro problem.

The Hornets’ payroll has become bloated with prohibitive long-term deals. Several players are owed major money after this season:

With those constraints, it will be difficult to build a winner around Walker without paying the luxury tax, which Charlotte has never paid.

Walker is the Hornets’ most valuable asset, and trading him could make their second-most valuable asset – their upcoming first-round pick – even more valuable. Charlotte also use Walker as enticement to unload a bad contract, a tactic Adrian Wojnarowski reports is being explored. Still, the Hornets are in so deep, it’d be difficult to escape salary-cap purgatory, even while shedding Walker.

Because he signed his rookie-scale extension before the national TV deals carried the salary cap into the stratosphere and before he rose into stardom, Walker has a low salary for his status. That could open the door for trades not possible with other stars, especially if the Hornets want to attach an albatross.

Only Isaiah Thomas has a lower salary among reigning All-Stars:

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Of course, teams looking to upgrade at point guard for the stretch run – Pistons? Pacers? Jazz? Nuggets? Cavaliers? Spurs? – would be interested in Walker. But because he has an another season left on his contract, other teams – Knicks? Magic? Suns? – could trade for him as a head start on next year. The best analogue: The Jazz getting out ahead by trading Deron Williams to the Nets before his contract entered its final year.

A team must also prepare to pay Walker in 2019, when he’ll be 30 years old. Though the $48 million over four years he’s earning now is nothing to sneeze at, free agency will be his first opportunity to really cash in on the new TV money. In the extremely likely event he doesn’t make an All-NBA team next season, the largest extension he could sign (starting July 1) would be four years, $64,512,000. That probably won’t cut it. So, Walker’s team – unless it has cap space to renegotiate-and-extend his deal – will likely have to ride out his unrestricted free agency.

“Of course, it would be nice to get a big contract like a lot of the guys around the league are getting,” Walker said. “But, at the same time, I just try to take it one day at a time.”

All these discussions have thrown Walker for a loss. Charlotte drafted him and built around him. He’s not quite sure how to handle this.

“I’ve never really been in trade rumors like that, like I’ve been hearing lately about myself,” Walker said. “But I mean, I don’t know. I don’t even know. I don’t know.

“This is very new, and I really just don’t know.”

Walker said management hasn’t told him anything, and he won’t ask. It’s easy to read the writing on the wall: Walker is a good player on a losing team, and those players are always ripe to get dealt. On the other hand, a team owned by Michael Jordan is probably less inclined to enter rebuilding voluntarily.

“I’m here,” Walker said, “and I’m just trying to play and trying to win and trying to do what I can for this organization and try to get back in the playoff hunt. That’s the main priority.”

The Hornets have won two in a row, and head coach Steve Clifford is back. A surge into playoff contention isn’t out of the question.

If it happens, it’ll probably be on Walker’s shouldeers.

“We put so much pressure on Kemba to do so much,” said assistant coach Stephen Silas, who served as acting head coach in Clifford’s absence.

Too much pressure?

“At times, it can be,” Silas said. “But that’s what he signed up for, and that’s how we’re built.”

For now, at least.

Joel Embiid whacks Jaylen Brown in face while celebrating basket (video)

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Joel Embiid‘s antics – the Instagram victory laps, trash-talking and taunting – can rub people the wrong way.

With Jaylen Brown last night, literally.