Kevin Martin is not James Harden. Obviously. The former is a quick and lithe spot-up shooter who predominantly gets his looks by moving off the ball. The latter is a ball-dominant player who thrives on finishing at the rim, either with lay-ups or free throws (and sometimes both). While the loss of Harden still lingers (witness the collapse against the Hawks), there is still something encouraging by the way that Martin has adapted his game within the Thunder team concept. In fact, it is pretty remarkable - in an offense that is dependent on either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook's one-on-one scoring prowess, Martin has quickly become a go-to scoring outlet. Here are his statistics so far, as compared to Durant and Westbrook:
On a PER basis, Martin is tied with Westbrook at 19.8 in player efficiency and trails only Durant, who has a PER of 21.8.
This is what HoopSpeak's Jeremy Conlin has to say:
If we operate under the assumption that Harden was definitely going to be traded if an agreement on an extension could not be reached, trading Harden for Kevin Martin certainly seems to make a lot of sense. Harden and Westbrook are both phenomenal players, but their respective games have a lot of overlap and result in a lot of redundancy, and, as a result, diminishing returns. It's pretty easy to see that Harden played significantly better without Durant than with Durant, and the same goes for Westbrook. Harden is without a doubt a phenomenal player, but Presti may have balked at maxing out a player in salary when they couldn't max out his effectiveness on the court.
So if the Thunder were making a checklist for the player they would want to replace James Harden in the short-term, they might look for a player who (a) can be just as effective playing off the ball next to Durant and Westbrook, (b) can provide a scoring punch to hold down the fort with Westbrook and Durant on the bench, and (c) won't inhibit Eric Maynor's development by taking the ball out of his hands. With Martin, they got all three of those things.
When Harden was in the line-up, the Thunder attack progression was thus: Durant, if not Durant then Westbrook, and if not Westbrook, then Harden. The two general reasons why this system worked well enough to get the young team to the Finals was:
- The Thunder brought waves of elite talent at an opposing defense, so that if the best defender (say, LeBron) dedicated himself to cover Durant, that left the team's 2nd best defender to deal with Westbrook. And if that 2nd best defender found success, then Harden would get to feast on the 3rd best defender, and I can't think of a single team in the NBA that can boast of 3 elite on-ball defenders. The end result was that one of these players was always treated to the opportunity to attack a very mediocre defender, and more often than not OKC would win that match-up.
- The presence of all 3 players on the court during crunch time meant that the Thunder could eliminate the opposing defense from doing any sort of aggressive double-teaming, because a double-team could be beaten by one pass, and then an open Durant/Westbrook/Harden could easily finish the play. It was the proverbial pick-your-poison situation.
However, as Conlin states, this progression cycle is an either/or scenario; the Thunder were less adept at seeing the trio enhance each other's games at any time outside of a fast break opportunity. With Martin however, he is a far more complimentary piece than Harden was because Martin does not rely on holding the ball in his hands.
The player whom Martin reminds me most is the mid-2000's version of Richard Hamilton. Back when he was part of the Pistons' guard-centric offense, Hamilton was the best in the game at working off the ball, using back-screens, and finding small slivers of daylight to fire up his quick-release jump shot. The dual benefit of having a player like Martin or Hamilton was: a) they could produce solid offense without clogging up the offensive system; and b) by virtue of their constant off-ball motion, everyone else in the offensive set became more active as well.
We have already seen some of the side-benefits of Martin's presence on the court, as the Thunder have averaged almost 22 assists per game as a team, a drastic improvement over last year's dead-last 18.5 assists per game. In order to use Martin, OKC has to become a better passing team. If OKC becomes a better passing team, everybody, including Martin, benefits.
However you want to label it, one thing’s for sure: It’s not normal. It’s a sidewinding push shot that looks more like something you’d see from a rec league game and not the NBA.
But if it works, it works. And for Martin, it works.
For his career, he’s averaged 18.4 points per game on solid percentages. He’s had massive games, including 45 points on just 18 shots, 50 on 22 or even 32 in a single half. Martin is probably the poster child for scoring efficient in the league, a guy that understands a good shot as well as anyone, a player that plays within the flow of the game. And a guy that can completely fill it up, all with that funky motion.
Young arrives at the same conclusion:
When the Thunder made the trade moving James Harden to Houston primarily in exchange for Martin, two thoughts ran through most Thunder fans' minds: a) Oh crap, we lost James Harden and b) we replaced him with the guy who has the funky shot? And it seems that after four games where it's obvious that Martin can not only play, but fit exceptionally well with Durant and Westbrook, moving on from that initial shock of losing Harden is starting to disappear.
The Thunder offense is still finding its path toward resembling the fearsome team from a season ago, but one thing that is becoming evident is that Kevin Martin is good enough to help them get there.