Kobe and the Lakers got a bit of a gift from OKC with Harden's departure
Yahoo! Sports reporter Adrian Wojnarowski broke the bombshell that the Oklahoma City Thunder dealt sixth man deluxe James Harden to the Houston Rockets for a package that centers around shooting guard Kevin Martin and rookie Jeremy Lamb. This comes on the heels of Harden rejecting a reported four-year, $52 million deal from the Thunder earlier in the week.
You want to talk about a game changer? Wow.
Harden may have had a rough NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, but make no mistake: The 2012 Thunder do not make the Finals without his steady play and ability to knock down huge shots in the fourth quarter. Harden gets a chance to go from being the premiere sixth man in the game to finally being the lead dog on his own team in Houston.
But while Houston cashes in, this indirectly benefits two teams: the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers. Yeah, cue up the old jokes about the Spurs, but when it all shakes out come April, they'll be right back in the mix as they usually are come playoff time. And they were bedeviled by Harden in the Western Conference Finals.
Even though the comeback from an 0-2 series deficit was seen as the official "arrival" of Kevin Durant, that series swung toward OKC when Harden asserted himself instead of playing third wheel to Durant and Russell Westbrook. Shooting a ridiculous 61 percent from three-point range and just under 50 percent (49.3) for the series, Harden was the X-factor San Antonio simply had no answer for.
Harden outplayed Westbrook and proved to be the steady hand that was the perfect antidote to Westbrook's schizophrenic play. And while Martin is a top five NBA shooting guard, he doesn't complement Durant and Westbrook the way Harden did.
Who is the team to beat in the West now?
So that's one team. Now, the real winners: the Los Angeles Lakers.
Most people are already eyeing a possible Western Conference Finals slobberknocker between the Lakers and Thunder. And while I do think both teams can still reach that round, I have to say that the Thunder just became an easier team for Los Angeles to beat.
Understand, the gripes about how Steve Nash and whoever else plays the point can't stop Westbrook are silly. The only person who consistently stops Westbrook is Westbrook. He's a dynamic player but often gets himself out of control.
It is not a matter of "stopping" Oklahoma City's big guns.
No, last year, the playoff's swung on L.A.'s inability to score off the bench (OKC outscored Los Angeles 153-68 over the five games) and having its slow defense stretched beyond the limit by Harden, which left Durant and Westbrook often unencumbered.
Without Harden, the Lakers suddenly face a team with Kevin Martin, a quality 2 guard, but not the same kind of player Harden is. Martin is a volume shooter who doesn't play off the ball as well. Without Harden, the pressure shifts to Eric Maynor, Reggie Jefferson, etc., to create shots. Needless to say, those are much more even matchups for the Laker bench. Harden was literally better than L.A.'s entire bench in their series.
Ultimately, stats are only one component of this. While the Thunder just dealt an arguable top 20-25 NBA player for a lesser third option and a rookie, what does this do to their famed chemistry?
Much was already being made about it during the preseason. Now, the West's best team has to fold in new additions and learn to play without one of the best security blankets in the NBA. All that will serve to do is benefit the team most poised to overtake them.
This gives the Lakers time—time to acclimate themselves to one another without worrying about their biggest competition taking off like a bottle rocket and distancing itself from the rest of Western Conference.
You hear a lot of talk about how home-court advantage doesn't matter: Don't buy it. The Lakers would be wise not to just assume that a fourth or fifth seed can be parlayed into a playoff run to the NBA Finals.
However, with the unsung member of the West's best trio (yes, they earned it) now in Houston, the potential road to the Finals is now that much smoother.
Yeah, I know it's October. I don't care. When the biggest roadblock loses its best bench weapon and a certified assassin in the clutch, it matters. It officially begins Tuesday. And while Christmas doesn't come until December, the Lakers got an early present from the Southwest.