The James Harden trade was consummated yesterday and involved the Thunder sending the Houston Rockets James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook, while OKC got Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, a 2013 second-round pick and two 2013 first-rounders, according to Yahoo Sports.
While this trade has led to endless debate about the Thunder giving up their current title hopes and destroying their great chemistry, I will be focusing on something that has been largely overlooked thus far. This is the upgrade that the Thunder have given their bench unit, turning it into the best bench in the NBA.
While Harden was the 2012 Sixth Man of the Year, the rest of the Thunder bench was lacking in talent and depth.This is one area where the rest of the big guns in the NBA often save money to limit the luxury tax. It is certainly a weakness with the Miami Heat roster, and the new look Lakers have a bench with scoring and not much else.
However, the San Antonio Spurs are the blueprint for a good bench on a good team, which goes five deep at least. The Thunder have been commonly compared to the Spurs, and this trade makes them even more similar in the way their roster is built.
The Thunder bench will start with Kevin Martin, who will be taking James Harden's sixth-man role. While Martin is not the same calibre of player that Harden is, he is not far off when it comes to scoring the rock. His offensive game is very developed and, in fact, similar to Harden's because he likes to either drive to the hoop to draw free throws or shoot from behind the arc.
Additionally, he is a better mid-range shooter than Harden and is better at getting shots off the ball, which would allow Westbrook and Durant to take larger ball handling roles.
Despite their offensive similarities, Martin is not nearly the playmaker as Harden and is also worse on the defensive end. Nevertheless, he should be very productive coming off the bench as a scorer against inferior opposition. In reality, he should be one of the front runners for the 2013 Sixth Man award.
The Thunder will also have Eric Maynor this season, who missed last year with a knee injury. Maynor is a pure point guard who is at his best setting up the offense and dishing assists, although he is skilled enough to score on his own.
Maynor will be taking up the brunt of James Harden's playmaking bench role and will do a much better job than Harden did because of his less selfish game and better passing skills. He can expect big (for the bench) minutes backing up Russell Westbrook.
The third established cog in OKC's bench is Nick Collison, who is in my opinion the ultimate hustle guy. He is not the biggest, strongest or most skilled big man in the league (far from it, in fact), but his rebounding, defense, mid range shooting and his proficiency at doing the little things like drawing charges and getting on loose balls makes him very valuable.
The main contributors on the bench are then rounded out with two very promising rookies, Perry Jones III and Jeremy Lamb. Both are unlikely to see huge minutes this season, but their summer league and preseason performances have shown them to be good players already in the league.
Jones is a very versatile player who can play either forward spot with a versatile game that includes post moves, outside shooting and driving to the rim. He would probably be best as a power forward, where his quickness and shooting touch would be a nightmare for opposing 4s.
Jeremy Lamb is probably the future of the Thunder at the shooting guard position, and his athleticism, defense and complementary game should bode well for him to get minutes early in his career. Lamb is a good perimeter defender and a talented off-the-ball offensive threat who can shoot off screens from downtown.
While neither of these rookies are first-year starters on a team as strong as the Thunder, they have the talent to be great energy bench players.
How well will the Thunder do in 2013?
The rest of the Thunder bench are unlikely to get big minutes, but if they are forced to, Reggie Jackson and DeAndre Liggins have the skills to contribute.
Jackson has looked good in the preseason as a point guard with the ability to score, but he will struggle for time behind Westbrook and Maynor. Contrastingly, DeAndre Liggins is one of the better perimeter defenders and hustlers on the team, but the presence of Jeremy Lamb and Liggins' offensive limitations could keep him on the pine for most of the season.
The wild card is Hasheem Thabeet. If he can develop defensively and avoid fouling, he could be a great centre to come off the bench and perform Perkins' role of defending the rim and grabbing rebounds. However, so far in his career, he has not done this.
As you will have just read, it is easy to reel off six names of Thunder bench players and what they can offer to the team. From defense to scoring to playmaking, it is all there, and to be honest, the bench would probably make a better team than the ones being rolled out by the cellar dwellers of the NBA.
Now and in the future, this bench could be the difference between the Thunder's roster and the rest of the super teams who invest heavily in their starters.
I think we need to give the Thunder bench the respect it deserves, for it could be the route to championship glory..