When the season opens up for Oklahoma City on Thursday night against the San Antonio Spurs, the starting five for the Thunder will look the same, but there will be a familiar face missing from the bench. Yes, James Harden, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, is gone from Oklahoma City, but that does not mean the Thunder are going to be any worse this season.
In the Harden trade, which took place last Saturday and shocked the NBA world, Oklahoma City received guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb as well as three draft picks. The draft picks will obviously come in and help the Thunder organization later on down the road, but Martin and Lamb are going to have an immediate impact for this team.
Kevin Martin, who had spent his last two seasons in Houston, averaged 23.4 points per game two years ago and averaged 17.1 points per game last season. Martin has also proved to be a reliable free-throw shooter, averaging nearly 87 percent from the charity strike for his career. It may take some time for Martin to become comfortable in Oklahoma City, but if you need a player who can come off the bench as a sixth man and score points, Martin is a very good fit.
The other player the Thunder acquired in the trade, rookie shooting guard Jeremy Lamb, will also be a great fit in their rotation. Much like Martin, Lamb can provide a significant scoring threat off the bench, and he could also project as a future starter for the Thunder.
Martin and Lamb will each help fill the void that Harden's departure leaves, but those are not the only two players that Oklahoma City is counting on this year.
Another player who the Thunder are really excited about this year is their first-round pick Perry Jones from Baylor. Jones will back up Kevin Durant at the small forward position and will provide another great scoring option off the bench for the Thunder. Jones also provides great rebounding ability for the Thunder and can help the team go big on the court because he stands at 6'11''.
So the Thunder obviously have three really good players coming off their bench, but last year they had a great player coming off their bench in Harden. So how do they go about replacing James Harden?
The first key is to not expect one player to come off the bench and replace Harden. Harden was the Sixth Man of the Year for a reason. Therefore it is very unlikely that someone on the Thunder will be able to duplicate his performance.
Further, it has to be a combined effort, and it has to come from different positions. Martin, Lamb and Jones along with other players like Nick Collison, Eric Maynor and maybe even Hasheem Thabeet will need to combine to provide that spark off the bench that James Harden brought last year.
Finally, maybe the most important thing for the Thunder this season is for Thabo Sefolosha to have a big year. Sefolosha had a very good year for the Thunder last year, but Harden was frequently there to bail him out if he was having a bad night. Now without James Harden in the lineup, Sefolosha may have to play a larger role in the offensive scoring this season.
There is no reason for Oklahoma City to be thrown out of the title discussion just because it no longer has James Harden. Harden was obviously invaluable to the success that the Thunder had last season, but their offseason additions have them prepared to fill the void that his departure brings.
Do not expect anything less than another strong title run for the Thunder this season.