The ongoing joke about the Oklahoma City Thunder these days goes like this: the Thunder traded James Harden for a season of Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams.
Every NBA fan knew that Martin was only going to be with the Thunder for this one season. OKC simply wasn’t going to be able to keep him. But that didn’t stop people for criticizing the Thunder even more for the trade after Martin chose Minnesota.
The thing that has really gone too far in my eyes is those who are saying the Thunder lost so much in Martin and aren’t going to replace what he did.
I understand that Martin produced last year overall. That’s what he is and who he’s been his entire career. He’s an efficient scorer who finds crafty ways to draw fouls and sneak behind defenders for easy layups.
My issue with Martin’s game all of last season was that I felt like his production was fool’s gold. I didn’t think it would translate to playoff basketball (he often no-showed against the best teams in the league too which helped in this theory).
The problem with that too was that the Thunder actually relied on him and wanted to rely on him with that second unit. No one is saying that he had to be Harden but it would have been nice for the Thunder to be able to run some offense through Martin while Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook rested.
This never really was the case aside from 2-3 times per game when he would run a two-man game with Nick Collison that occasionally resulted in an easy backdoor cut for a layup, something that was rarely successful against good teams in the league and definitely not something the Thunder could rely on.
Martin was so incapable of being someone the Thunder could rely on with the second unit that the rotation was altered at the beginning of the season to rest Durant with three minutes to go in the first quarter or so and bring him back to start the second and fourth quarters so Martin didn’t have to be alone out there.
What Martin produced for the Thunder last year was a mirage. Did he help the Thunder be one of the best offenses in the league? Yes. But was that going to be something OKC could count on in the playoffs? No and it wasn’t. Especially when Westbrook got hurt, Martin didn’t even come close to stepping up in his absence as more defensive attention just resulted in less offensive output from him.
My ultimate point is this: the Thunder don’t need to replace what Martin was because that’s not getting them any closer to a title, which is all the Thunder care about at this point. Relying on someone in the regular season who isn’t going to show up in the playoffs is worse in a way than not having that someone at all.
Now the Thunder don’t have Martin and I think during this regular season, the Thunder will then have a better idea of their team and who will show up in the playoffs.
The guys that you always not what they will give you in the playoffs are the super athletes that can impose their will no matter what the defense is. Durant and Westbrook are of course this. Harden was and so is Serge Ibaka and I even see Reggie Jackson and Lamb as potentially being those types of guys.
Physical defense by just about anyone could take Martin out of a game. But while Martin can rightly be considered a better player than Jackson or Lamb, what he isn’t is a better athlete. That matters because when someone tries to play tough defense on a Jackson or Lamb, they can more easily match that athleticism and go to a physical style of play that we always see in the playoffs, instead of being like Martin who has to rely on trickery to be successful.
The Thunder thought they were going to have three scoring options in last year’s playoffs. Had Westbrook not gotten injured and OKC made it to the West Finals like they probably would have, they may have been in for a big surprise when that third scoring option laid a goose egg. The Thunder wouldn’t have been a team capable of adjusting to their third scorer not showing up.
That’s why I prefer Martin out of here. The Thunder get an entire season now to have two guys in KD and Russ and to figure out where everyone else fits in. I think it will ultimately put the Thunder in a place where they will be able to relay what they do in the regular season more closely into what they can do in the playoffs.
And if there’s one advantage the Thunder will still have, it’s that they will be the most athletic team in the league next season, still with the highest ceiling to perform on a basketball court on any given possession. What I mean by that is no one can actually contest a Durant jumper, no one can actually stay in front of Westbrook, no one can match what the Thunder can do on a basketball court when they are at their best.
The biggest question surrounding the Thunder and their success next season will be the same. Can they play their best enough? They seem to hit their potential pretty rarely when compared to the other top teams in the league. I think next year they will understand their identity better than ever and have a chance to start maxing out more than ever. Because of that, I like their chances for a title better than a season ago.