The Oklahoma City Thunder made a very tough decision this past weekend, deciding to cash in on James Harden’s value now and trade him to the Houston Rockets knowing that they wouldn’t be able to keep him past this season.
The trade took many by surprise as Harden had a breakout season last year winning the Sixth Man of the Year Award and establishing himself as the perfect compliment next to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
The Thunder got a good package back for Harden but replacing him isn’t going to be easy. The general consensus now is that the Thunder will be worse this season but the trade should benefit them down the road, a tough pill to swallow when you made it to the NBA Finals last season.
But will the Thunder be worse this season? Are they less of a threat to win the title now that Harden is gone?
In losing Harden, the Thunder will take a step back in some regards but they can still be a better team than they were last season. Hey still have Durant and Westbrook who are both continually approaching their primes and poised for bigger years than ever. Serge Ibaka has also shown signs of developing into an offensive weapon especially and could help replace some of the offense OKC will be losing with Harden.
Kevin Martin is not a terrible replacement for Harden either. He is known for being efficient like Harden, can spread the floor and knock down threes and get to the line at an alarmingly high rate. Martin is also a proven scorer in his career having averaged 23-plus points per game three seasons in his career. Martin should replace Harden coming off the bench and the downgrade won’t be as dramatic as some think.
Throw in Eric Maynor’s return and rookies Perry Jones III and Jeremy Lamb and the Thunder aren’t just losing a player in Harden, but gaining a lot of others as well.
When a player leaves, it opens up doors for new players to emerge. When the Thunder traded Jeff Green away two years ago, it allowed for Harden and Ibaka to get more opportunities and blossom into the players that they are today.
We will see that again with the Thunder this season. There will be more balance for the Thunder after Durant and Westbrook this year. This might actually be a very good thing. Durant, Westbrook and Harden combined for an extremely high usage rate last season, leaving little opportunities for anyone else which meant when one of them wasn’t playing well (Harden in the Finals) it really hurt the team.
If the Thunder start getting a little more out of Ibaka on offense, while Maynor is running the show getting everyone in the second unit involved and Martin now and then has huge scoring games off the bench and otherwise is consistent, the Thunder may be in a better position than they were last year.
Harden’s departure may even open the door a little more for Durant and Westbrook to develop even more. Westbrook knows for sure now that the Thunder are totally committed to him. He will be the man as much as he wants to now and could end up averaging 25-plus points per game this season.
Durant will be asked to do even more now too. The focus of the Thunder offense has narrowed some and when it’s on Durant and Westbrook, that will be a very good thing.
The real question still remains: can the Thunder still compete for a title like they did last year?
We will have to see if there is a significant drop off in offensive efficiency and fire power this season. Durant and Westbrook should be able to shoulder the load against most teams but the better defenses will require players after Durant and Westbrook to produce as well.
In terms of matchups, the Thunder are still built as well as anyone to play against the Lakers. They still have size in Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins with Nick Collison off the bench. Jones may turn out to be good enough to cover some fours off the bench as well.
The Thunder can go small still probably even better than last year. Their second unit may very well not have a traditional center seeing as Hasheem Thabeet is the backup five now with Cole Aldrich also being traded to Houston. That could mean more minutes for Jones instead with Collison getting center minutes. It might result in quicker returns to the floor for Durant alongside Jones and Collison in the frontline which will be a very good small unit for OKC.
The Thunder will be missing an elite wing player that they had last year. They can make up for some of Harden’s shooting, some of his playmaking, some of his easy baskets on the fast break but they won’t be able to replace the kind of superstar skill he displayed from time-to-time last year. Harden completely took over Game 4 vs. Dallas in the playoffs and then hit possibly the biggest shot of the series against San Antonio in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. That won’t be there next year.
The Thunder are still better off than most teams when it comes to playing for a title next year. You can make the case that now San Antonio has a better shot against OKC but they are no shoo-in to beat them in a series. The Lakers will still be the biggest concern for the Thunder. They still have the tools to match up with them which gives them as good a shot as anyone to make it back to the Finals this year.