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Kevin Martin, obtained in the off-season by way of the James Harden trade, has impressed everyone with his play in a Thunder uniform. What comes next?
Kevin Martin has been a key component in the Thunder's run to the best record in the NBA leading up to the Christmas break. Lest you consider him a mere byproduct of a good system, please note that he did not play against the Timberwolves and the Thunder dropped their first game after 12 consecutive wins. In that loss the Thunder offense was a complete mess, their bench, a liability.
Alex Kennedy at Hoopsworld gets Martin to talk a bit about his transition to the Thunder and what it might mean for both the team and himself going forward:
"This team has embraced me and made my transition so much easier," Martin told HOOPSWORLD. "At this point, that’s all I can ask for. We’re going to keep getting better as the season goes on. We’re having fun now, but we feel like we still have a couple more steps to take."
Martin is in an interesting place in his career. Martin is 29 years old and at the end of a sizable contract that pays him just under $13 million per year, which means that most of his NBA career is now in the rear view mirror rather than in front of him. An interesting decision tree effects every player's career which determines who they want to be in the grand scheme of things. Sometimes it happens early on (Kevin Durant decided he wanted to be the best very early on), sometimes it happens mid-stream (Tim Duncan decided that taking less money was his best chance at continuing championship runs) and for some players, it never happens, and the league is littered with players like Stephon Marbury, Derrick Coleman, and the like who made a hundred million dollars and now merely serve as precautionary tales. Which direction is Martin going to choose?
Of course Martin loves it in OKC, and I would wager that most players would like the environment there as well. Why? I think it is because in all of us, we have an innate wiring that finds satisfaction in both the process of working hard as well as the outcome that is a byproduct of it. Some people possess it on their own, while others need to be coaxed and cannot find the same motivation outside of the right kind of environment. Durant and Russell Westbrook have this internal drive in spades and have established an environment in OKC that sets the bar very high. As Martin notes, their example-setting is a big reason why the Thunder are going to be chasing titles for the next 5 years (at least):
"Coming to a team like this, where we have Russell and Kevin as the number one and two options, it makes life easier," Martin said. "I realize, after being a number one guy for so many years, you have to have that extra ‘it’ to your game. That means being the first guy in the gym in the morning, being a student of the game, studying the best defenses like the Spurs and the Celtics to see how they try to stop you every game. Those are the things that make you better and they have that ‘it’ factor. We’re just trying to follow their lead and do what they do."
I find this quote fascinating because Martin, intentionally or not, admits something opposed to his own interests. In effect, he is saying that he himself is not an "It" guy. He's been in the #1 role for years, by all accounts he does all the hard work that is necessary to be successful, and yet he admits that in OKC, he follows the other guys' leads. Perhaps Martin is not willing to overtly make such a concession, but the truth is, he is right. Martin is not an "It" guy, and there are very few people in the league who are. It is easy to spot them - they're the guys who both put themselves in the most high-pressure situations and then come through in a majority of them. Those are the guys who win championships, and for players of slightly or significantly less stature, it is often in their best interest, both playing-wise as well as bank account-wise to join careers. Those "It" guys prolong careers of the rest while elevating them to heights that are otherwise inaccessible (see: Ray Allen).
It is easy to see why Martin has fit in so well in OKC and we are coming to realize why the Thunder were so easily able to adapt to Martin's game. Royce Young at Daily Thunder writes:
Martin’s always been one of the best pure scorers in basketball, but now it seems he getting some of the recognition he’s deserved in the past because he’s doing it on a good team. His unselfishness has impacted the team in a lot of positive ways. Martin is the kind of player that doesn’t really approach the game as you-vs-me, but as us-vs-them. I think that idea of giving up a good shot for a great shot has rubbed off on Westbrook and Durant some. Martin trusts his teammates and I think they’re trusting him back.
This sentiment reminds me of something we discussed a while back, but in the context of Durant. Given the choice, is it better for a player like Durant to max out his talents, or to restrain them some so that another player might flourish? I think the same lesson applies here, both to Durant but also to Martin as well. Durant must max out his talents, and by doing so, he will elevate the game of everyone around him. Martin can choose to willingly reduce his game (and his contract) to be an important component of a dominant team, or he can go elsewhere (like Harden did) and roll the dice on trying to be a highly paid "It" guy on a team that the Thunder are going to steamroll for years to come.
In my mind, the lesson here is that within the Durant/Westbrook dynamic, they are going to be dominating the league for years to come, and other players can either be part of that freight train or they can try to stop it. Martin, as good as he is, would do well to recognize that in this Thunder dynamic, it doesn't have to be him in this key role. He is a necessary component, but he is not essential. Which is better - to be a necessary component for a championship team, or an essential component of a team that will never win it all?
Martin's time will tell.
h/t to Daily Thunder for spotting the original article.