As you’ve surely heard by now, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and a few first rounders. A trade of this magnitude has caused ripples that reach across the Western Conference, at least. Oklahoma City has dropped from the ring of real title contenders, which now consists solely of Miami and the Lakers. However, the Thunder still have a puncher’s chance at a title.
Replacing Harden with Lamb and Martin doesn’t really hurt the Thunder on the defensive side of the ball. Harden, although he was better than Martin, was never a stalwart defender, and in fact, if Jeremy Lamb’s length and athleticism pans out, the Thunder may have gained another dynamic wing defender. The real pain of Harden’s loss will be felt on the offensive side of the ball. What made Harden special was his combination of super efficient scoring and above average playmaking ability. On a team that starts Russell Westbrook at point guard, the ability to bring a calming offensive presence off the bench is a valuable asset. This year, the Thunder will attempt to replace Harden with Lamb, Martin, and Eric Maynor, their newly returned from injury backup point guard. Although Martin and Maynor can individually replicate Harden’s scoring and playmaking, respectively, neither combines the two. Losing Harden’s complete offensive game will put a much greater pressure on Durant and Westbrook, one which they may be unable to withstand with any great success.
I want to take a sidebar here to address the people blasting Harden for choosing money over a chance to win multiple titles in Oklahoma. I’m not referring to the fans that are doing this; fans are passionate creatures who don’t know better. I’m referring to the basketball writers who, after the trade was announced, shamelessly bashed Harden’s character and questioned his so-called “will to win”. Unfortunately, this weekend provided a sobering example of the fleeting quality of athletic success. Star University of South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore suffered a gruesome injury which makes any hope of a professional football career an afterthought. Such injuries are thankfully less common in basketball. However, it seems ridiculously shortsighted of NBA scribes to attack a player simply trying to maximize his earning potential. Not only is it shortsighted, it shows a disturbing lack of impartiality on the part of the writers to suggest that the player should sacrifice money so that his billionaire owner can chase titles and save money in the process. Shame on you, sportswriters who did so.
The effect of the trade on the Rockets is even more amorphous. The result of Harden’s position as the third wheel on the Thunder is a sense of doubt about whether or not he can be a star capable of carrying a team on his back. I, for one, think he can. Sure, his efficiency is bound to drop. Thing is, it’s so high in the first place that even a significant drop still means he’ll be one of the more efficient volume scorers in the league. The part of Harden’s game that rely excites me, however, is his passing. If his per-minute numbers hold up in an increased role, Harden has the chance to become a Manu-like initiator on offense, capable of running a team for long stretches, as Manu did this past season. It remains to be seen how he’ll fit with Jeremy Lin, another guard who thrives with the ball in his hands, running the pick and roll, but the problem of having two young, potential laden guards forming your backcourt, to quote fictional drug dealer Marlo Stanfield, “sounds like one of them good problems.” In Harden, Morey finally has the culmination of his asset accumulation of gambit: a young star (or, in Harden’s case, a player who can become a star) surrounded by young pieces and cap flexibility. The Rockets may not light the world on fire this season (although I for one think the 8th seed is certainly in play for them), but the future looks brighter in Houston than it has for a while.