The Oklahoma City Thunder's 2012-13 season since day one has been filled with a giant, "What if?"
Where would the Thunder be right now going into the playoffs if James Harden were coming off the bench? Would "the Beard" have boosted them to the number one overall seed in the playoffs? I think the overall consensus from most people would be that if the reigning 6th Man of the Year were still playing for the Thunder, they would be the clear cut favorite in the West. The Thunder have had their struggles this season, whether it is the bench, or Russell Westbrook turning it over. However, they are still heading into the playoffs with number one seed in the West.
The Thunder traded an all star and arguably the best 2 guard in the league for a marginally worse player in Kevin Martin. James Harden has averaged 26.2 points per game with 5.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds a contest for theRockets, while Kevin Martin has averaged 14.3 points and 1.9 assists this season. The Thunder has seemed out of sorts at times without Harden. The bench has struggled mightily at times during the season without a true playmaker to generate offense. Harden was able to handle the ball and run pick and roll. The offense for the second unit completely ran through Harden and his ability to run the pick and roll and penetrate and find shooters. That isn'tKevin Martin's skill set and the second unit has thus struggled to find a true playmaker. The Thunder has benefitted recently from an emerging Reggie Jackson, but he is still no James Harden. James Harden was also very good in the clutch. His assist ratio, meaning the percentage of possessions that ended with him having an assist, was 97.7. That is ridiculous. And his 3 point percentage in the playoffs last season with 5 minutes or less in a close game was 67%. Both of those numbers are really impressive, and losing that could be difficult in close games.
The one big issue for the Thunder could be Harden's performance going down the stretch of games. The Thunder had a third guy to go to when the game got close. If Westbrook or Durant didn't have it they could give it to Harden and let him make plays and then they could make plays off of Harden. At least that is the public opinion. However, the numbers don't exactly point to that being true. Harden's usage rate in the clutch last season was 6.5%. Almost all of his season averages were down in the clutch than they were during the season. He might hit some big shots every now and then, but he wasn't consistently making plays in the clutch, or at least the way people think that he was.
How on Earth could anyone say that the Thunder trading James Harden made them better off? Well the thing is, they might actually be better off. The Thunder with Harden scored 109.8 points per 100 possessions and averaged 103.1 points per game, which are very admirable numbers both being in the top five of the league. This year the Thunder without Harden are averaging 112 points per 100 possessions and 105.95 points per game. Both are increases from last season and both are the best in the NBA. They are outscoring opponents by an average of 9.4 points per game. That is an extremely large number, meaning that the Thunder have been blowing teams out. But how could they be better after trading away an all-star?
Well, everyone has elevated their games this season. Durant's field goal percentage, 3 point percentage, assists, points per game, and PER have all risen this year. The biggest of the increases being that Durant's assists jumped more than an assist per game. Russell Westbrook's 3-point percentage, rebounds, assists, and PER have all gone up. Just like Durant, Westbrook's biggest improvement has been in with his assists; they have increased by 2 assists per game. Westbrook's assist ratio, which is the percentage of players possessions that end in an assist, was 29.8% last year and is up to 38.3% this year. Clearly the Thunder's superstars have learned how to better involve and use the rest of the team.
It is argument that the Thunder's losing Harden has most affected Westbrook and Durant and that the trade has more to do with them than it does Kevin Martin. Harden was like a security blanket for Westbrook and Durant; they knew that if they didn't have their games working or didn't like their matchup they always had Harden. Not having Harden forced Westbrook and Durant to be that much better and take even more responsibility than they already had. By trading Harden, Presti said to Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka that he believed that they were good enough to win a championship without Harden. Even within the Thunder's new "big three," it seems that Westbrook has increased his game the most. The Thunder ran numerous sets when Harden and Westbrook were both in the game where Harden was the main ball handler and Westbrook was more of an off guard. Without Harden this year Westbrook has been forced to be a point guard and forced to get people involved. He is scoring at the same rate he was last year but is involving people far better and is far more efficient.
Serge Ibaka has also largely benefitted from not having Harden. That isn't to say that Harden kept Ibaka from succeeding, but Ibaka's role has largely increased. His true shooting percentage has increased, and his points per game have increased. His blocks have gone down, but his defense has actually been a lot better this season. His help defense and his concept of team defense have improved materially. Furthermore, Ibaka has grown mentally in the same way Durant and Westbrook have. Ibaka was entrusted to become the third member of the Thunder's (largely overused term in the NBA) "big three." That has to go a long way in the mind of a player that is trying to become an elite player. In a lot of ways it could come off like the Thunder chose Ibaka over Harden (which they didn't really do, they just signed Ibaka first trying to gain whatever financial flexibility they could), but at the end of the day it is Ibaka in whom the Thunder have trusted to advance, a trust that is empowering.
One of the other reasons that the Thunder has been performing better this season is the way that Scott Brooks has changed up his rotations. Last year Brooks sat Westbrook and Durant at the same time often and left Harden with a bench unit. Harden was entrusted to make the offense work while his all star teammates rested. Of the Thunder's top 10 most played 5 man units this year (meaning the top 10 most played 5 man player combinations) only one of the units do not have Westbrook or Durant in it. Of the top 10 most played 5 man units this year only 66.7 of those minutes have been without either Durant or Westbrook. Last season with Harden, of the Thunder's top 10 most played five man units, 3 of them were without Westbrook and Durant. That calculated 258.8 minutes without Durant on the floor. That may seem confusing but the point is that last year Brooks played Harden and the bench by themselves more, without one of the superstars. This year Brooks has spaced out his rotations knowing that the bench is weaker so that either Durant or Westbrook can be on the floor for longer. This is important because without Durant or Westbrook the Thunder do struggle quite a bit without a true playmaker on the floor.
The last part of this argument that we haven't even explored is the money side. This might be the one argument that supports the Thunder's decision to trade Harden. The Thunder is obviously a small market team and doesn't have near the revenue stream that many other large teams have. I know they are successful but they just don't have the same kind of money that a team like the Knicks or Lakers has. If James Harden had signed with the Thunder, even if he would have signed for what the thunder offered him, which was less than the Rockets, the Thunder would have been paying a luxury tax. Serge Ibaka's contract goes into affect next year and so would have Harden's obviously and that would have cost the Thunder. By my calculations, if the Thunder kept the same team they have now and had Harden instead of Kevin Martin, they would owe somewhere around $10 or $11 million dollars, and that isn't accounting for any other moves they might need to make. To a small market team like the Thunder, that is a lot of money. In an age where rumors actually exist that the Lakers could amnesty Kobe so that they don't have to pay a luxury tax, then of course the Thunder are going to do what they did. Trading Harden allowed the Thunder far more financially flexibility in the future.
We cannot yet say with certainty whether the Harden trade was good or bad. What is true is that the Thunder is performing very well despite the criticisms of the trade. The true test of whether or not this was a good trade will come when the playoffs are over and the Thunder's outcome has been decided. I am trying to show that with the data and the trends this season that the Thunder could very easily be right back where they were last season with a matchup with the Heat in the finals. We will just have to wait and see what happens.
My name is Jack Warren and I am on the sports television/radio broadcast The Pack. We began our show in February and through our interactive program and faithful viewers, we gained quick momentum. Join us on Monday nights from 10 to midnight on Cox channel 124, or AT&T UVerse channel 99 and follow us @ThePackOU.