The Oklahoma City Thunder shocked the basketball world last weekend when they traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets.
It’s not often that a team like the Thunder, so young and fresh of a trip to the NBA Finals would shake up their roster so dramatically. But management felt this was the best decision for the franchise down the road since it would have been too costly to keep Harden.
Harden’s departure means more pressure for others. Kevin Durant will look to become more of a playmaker this season, Serge Ibaka will try to be more involved in the offense and Russell Westbrook will try to do survive the criticism that will inevitably come his way.
Westbrook may have the hardest time without Harden, who was described as the perfect third banana for Durant and Westbrook and Westbrook in particular. When things were getting out of hand and when Westbrook didn’t have it, it was Harden who calmed things down, got others involved and made the smart plays.
It helped Westbrook to the best season of his career. With Harden increasing his workload last year, Westbrook shot the best percentage from the field in his career. And in the playoffs, we got to appreciate the greatness in Westbrook’s game instead of questioning why he shot more than Durant.
Harden helped with all of this. If Westbrook took five bad shots in a game it was okay because Harden was so efficient with everything he did, the perfect balancing force.
Now Westbrook is exposed again and we saw it already last night in the Thunder’s first game of the 2012-13 regular season. He went 6-for-21 from the field in an 86-84 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. When he took bad shots, didn’t make the right pass, Harden wasn’t there to save the day and shift the momentum back to normal for OKC.
So will this be the Westbrook we saw all year? Will he regress for the first time in his career, feeling the effects of the Harden trade more than anyone?
It is obvious extremely early and Westbrook also got off to a slow start last season. By all accounts, he is set to have a better year this year as he does improve his game every year. The Spurs are a sort of nemesis for him too. He hasn’t figured them out yet and they have no problem defending him and making him work on the defensive end.
It’s important to not forget that the Thunder are replacing Harden with Kevin Martin and Eric Maynor that bring a lot to the table too. If you want that true point guard-ness on the floor to stabilize Westbrook, look no further than Maynor. He can play the role even better than Harden. If you need more scoring punch when Westbrook is having an off shooting night, Martin can help with that.
It was Game 1 for Martin and Maynor last night and both were a bit tentative. That will change soon as the season goes on. They will be more aggressive and help to make the Thunder have one of the best benches in the league again.
Then we will get to focus on the good with Westbrook again. If they can lift some of the pressure off him, Westbrook can start playing freely again. And when that’s the case, he produces as much as any player in the league.
The Thunder will be okay. Westbrook will survive. But there will be some unexpected growing pains that we didn’t expect to see before last Saturday night.