In a cruel twist of fate nobody saw coming, the Oklahoma City Thunder—yes, the same team that represented the Western Conference in the 2012 NBA Finals—have started the season 1-2.
This slow start can be attributed to the team having to undergo a quick adjustment, as reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets after failing to come to terms on a contract extension. In return, OKC received guard Kevin Martin and rookie Jeremy Lamb, along with some draft picks.
Nothing against Martin, but he is no James Harden. Granted, he scored 28 points off the bench in the team's loss to the Atlanta Hawks on November 4, shooting 6-8 from long range and 8-11 overall, but Martin is nowhere near as consistent nor as well-rounded a player as his predecessor. When push comes to shove, he is a pure scorer and little more.
In fact, let's look at Harden's history with Oklahoma City and see just how big a role he ended up playing with the team. He was selected third overall out of Arizona State in 2009 with a reputation as a scorer/shooter, and he averaged 9.9 points over 22.9 minutes per game.
Over the next two seasons, however, Harden improved his game in almost every way possible. Not only did his jump shot become so accurate to the point where it could be described as deadly, but he also proved to be a force above the rim and further developed as a playmaker.
As a result, the Thunder showed continual improvement and became a force in the Western Conference, finally making it to the NBA Finals last season where they lost to the Miami Heat. Before Harden was traded, there was no reason to believe the team couldn't get that far again.
Now, the team is stuck with a pure scorer in the highly overrated Kevin Martin, who was a late first-round pick out of Western Carolina by the Sacramento Kings in 2004.
Martin is no slouch when it comes to putting points on the board, holding a career average of 18.4 per game. He and Harden have both shot about 44 percent from the field for their career. However, at the end of the day, the former Sun Devil is still the better man.
The sad truth is that Martin refuses to do anything except play offense, and that's going to hurt the Thunder who rely on a balanced attack on both sides of the floor. He's averaged 20.7 points off the bench for OKC thus far, but it's only a three-game stretch and not indicative of how he'll perform over the duration of the season, which brings us to our most key point.
Can the Thunder make the NBA Finals with Kevin Martin on the roster?
Where Harden flourished in the durability department is where Martin ultimately falls short. In each of his three years with the Thunder, Harden only missed a short time last season after taking a Metta World Peace elbow to the head.
Martin, on the other hand, is entering his ninth NBA season and has only reached the 70-game mark three times. Unlike Harden, he isn't a natural athlete and his injury issues only add insult to injury (or vice versa) to the fact that he can't create plays for his teammates the same way the reigning Sixth Man of the Year did.
That all being said, there really isn't any reason that the Thunder should be off to as slow a start as they are this year. Save for Harden, the core that played a role in the team getting to the Finals last year is still pretty much intact.
Sure, Martin may be averaging 20.7 points while shooting 53 percent from the field and 70 percent from downtown, but he has done little else. If OKC is to get back to the Finals, he needs to learn he's anything but the face of the offense and he only shoots the ball when he absolutely must.
Otherwise, the Thunder are going to underachieve and the fans' fingers are going to be pointed at team GM Sam Presti, the man who orchestrated the Harden trade. Had he just been patient and waited until the offseason to negotiate with his restricted free agent, perhaps a slow start could have been avoided.