Mired in a no-win situation, the Oklahoma City Thunder acquitted themselves well while dealing James Harden, but make no mistake—this team is not as strong a title contender this season without him.
This is a fact of which I'm sure the Thunder are all too aware, but they were driven to trade Harden after they could not come to terms on a contract for the Arizona State product about to enter his fourth NBA season.
ESPN's John Hollinger reports that the Thunder and Harden were closing in on an extension, but the two sides ended up about "$8 million apart over four years."
So, instead of overextending themselves in contract they did not like or rolling the dice and playing the season with Harden in a contract year, the Thunder traded him.
Packaged with Harden are Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook, and filling the void of their departure will be Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and some nice draft picks, which is good for the Thunder's future, but obviously doesn't alter their outlook for this season.
The loss of Aldridge, Hayward and Cook is essentially a non-issue for the Thunder. If the Thunder suffer a rash of injuries, it will come up to bite them, but in the overall scheme of their title hopes, it is not detrimental. This is all about the loss of Harden.
The reigning Sixth Man of the Year finished last season with a PER of 21.13 while averaging 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 31.4 minutes per game. He was also a valuable defender and brought nice lineup flexibility with his ability to play multiple positions.
Kevin Martin will take a huge part of Harden's role on, as he is a proven scorer. The 29-year-old has averaged 18.4 points per game over his eight years in the league. He has a nice shot and he is adept at getting to the foul line.
However, he is not nearly as good a ball-handler, rebounder or defender as Harden.
As for Lamb, the rookie out of Connecticut is an unproven commodity, but I think we all saw enough of this kid in college to know he has the potential to be a great scorer.
Lamb knows how to finish, and he has a nice shooting touch. He also has the athleticism and quickness to be an excellent defender. If Lamb reaches his potential, this will turn out to be a great trade for the Thunder. However, it is going to take some time.
Lamb will undoubtedly provide some solid minutes off the bench, but given his youth and lack of strength, it is going to be more on Martin to fill the void created by Harden's departure for this season.
This is going to set the Thunder back. Harden's versatility and ball-handling ability allowed the Thunder to throw multiple looks at the defense, and that was something the Thunder had worked years on creating and perfecting.
Now they have to tweak their approach, as they don't have a shooting guard that is a reliable ball-handler to bring off the bench.
The Thunder did what they could to replace Harden's value, and they did an excellent job in the long term, but they are undoubtedly weaker now than they were before the trade.