Thus far, the James Harden-less Oklahoma City Thunder have been one of the NBA’s most intriguing stories. My personal researching and polling leads me to believe that one would be hard pressed to find an NBA scout or front office staff member that thinks that the Thunder did the correct thing by trading Harden.
The truth is, Kevin Martin cannot fill the void left by Harden’s sudden departure. Martin can help to replace Harden’s scoring output, but his playmaking off the dribble is something the team will continue to miss.
And when the team lost two of its first three games to begin the season—its second loss coming at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks—the murmurs of the naysayers grew louder.
Since then, the Thunder have rebounded nicely and, as of Nov. 25, have gone 9-2.
Weeks ago, I wrote that the Thunder would remain one of the top dogs in the NBA’s Western Conference, and then, I pointed out that Martin would probably see his offensive efficiency increase as a result of playing alongside Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
As of Nov. 25, the Thunder have played 14 games and have won 10 of them. As of Nov. 25, Martin is playing about 31 minutes per game, in which he is averaging about 16 points per game and shooting 46 percent from the field. From behind the arc, Martin is converting on 50 percent of his three-point attempts, though, and for him, that’s a career high.
Still, the season is young and one should naturally expect Martin’s three point prowess to regress to the mean as the season grows old. He is a 38 percent shooter from distance over the course of his career, after all.
But there’s no denying that his numbers are evidence of his efficiency increasing, especially considering that last season, as a member of the Houston Rockets, Martin shot about 41 percent from the field and 35 percent from the three-point territory.
Martin has always been a dead-eye shooter, and with the Thunder, his uncontested looks and opportunities will only increase.
Additional evidence of the positive effect that being on the same court with Westbrook and Durant can be found by perusing Harden’s numbers thus far without them.
As of Nov. 25, Harden is averaging 25.2 points per game for the Rockets, compared to the 16.8 points he averaged per game last season for the Thunder. But he has become a less efficient shooter, converting on about 44 percent of his shots, compared to 49 percent last season.
From three-point territory, the difference is all the more apparent. Last season, Harden converted on 39 percent of his looks from beyond the arc, but thus far this year his conversion rate has dipped to 32 percent.
When comparing numbers directly, it’s difficult to support any argument that says that Martin can’t replicate what Harden gave the Thunder last season. The numbers are eerily similar and will probably end up being about the same come the end of the season.
With the Thunder, Martin’s 15.9 points per game is slightly less than Harden’s 16.8, and Martin’s 46 percent shooting from the field is slightly less than Harden’s 49, but Martin’s 50 percent shooting from three-point territory trumps Harden’s 39 percent.
Martin’s numbers will change, but when it comes to shooting the ball, he’ll replicate Harden’s success.
The major issue for the Thunder, however, is that Martin has never excelled at creating plays off of the dribble. That’s something that Harden did very well, and it’s something that the Thunder will miss in his absence.
Last season with the Thunder, Harden averaged 3.7 assists per game, and this season, Martin is averaging just 1.8. For Martin, that number isn’t likely to double and approach Harden’s output. And therein lies the major concern for the Thunder.
The return of Eric Maynor—the fifth-year point guard who missed all but nine games last season—made the Thunder's decision to essentially swap Harden for Martin easier. The thought was that Martin could provide Harden’s scoring and Maynor could reproduce his playmaking.
And on paper, that’s true. The only issue with that is that basketball isn’t played on paper.
It’s unquantifiable, but there’s a major difference between having one player on the court who is a threat to score or make plays for another versus two separate players that could perform either function—but not both—as well.
Guarding a player like Harden—one who is a threat equally capable of beating you with a pass or a shot—makes a defense play nervously and tentatively, and that’s something that the San Antonio Spurs learned the hard way.
Harden’s vision makes him a dual threat, and that’s something that neither Martin nor Maynor is.
So while there are valid arguments to be made for both those that support and oppose general manager Sam Presti’s decision to trade Harden to the Rockets, how one understands what Harden’s role with the team was will determine whether or not Martin can fill the void left in Harden’s wake.
In last season’s playoffs, the Thunder consistently played three reserve players: Harden, Derek Fisher and Nick Collison. They averaged 32, 23 and 17 minutes per playoff game, respectively.
Through games played on Nov. 25, three Thunder reserves are again playing the bulk of the bench minutes. Martin, Nick Collison and Eric Maynor are averaging 31, 19 and 13 minutes per game.
In the long run, barring something unforeseen, Martin, Collison and Maynor will be the primary reserves for the Thunder, and what remains to be seen is not whether Martin, by himself, can replace what the Thunder lost with Harden, but whether or not Martin and Maynor will be an upgrade over Fisher and Harden.
The truth is, the Thunder probably don’t trade Harden to the Rockets if Presti and his staff weren’t confident that Maynor could be a very effective reserve playmaker. And as the season progresses and the torn right ACL he suffered improves, his minutes and productivity will increase.
The Thunder will only go as far as Westbrook and Durant can take them, but in the NBA’s new era of the super team, a deeper team and a supporting cast is a must for any wannabe contender.
Whether or not Martin can fill Harden’s role depends on the extent to which one believes that Harden’s impact on a game goes beyond the numbers and is immeasurable.
The long-term hope for the Thunder is that Hasheem Thabeet, Reggie Jackson or Jeremy Lamb can become a solid rotation player, and the truth is that whether or not that happens will have just as much of an impact on the long-term championship prospects of the Thunder as whether or not Martin can replicate Harden’s production.
With two of the game’s brightest young stars and a general manager who’s done an exceptional job, the Thunder and their fans rightfully have championship aspirations.
But the Larry O’Brien Trophy will be won by players one through eight, not one through six. So even if you don’t believe Martin is an adequate replacement for Harden, that doesn’t change the fact that, when it’s all said and done, the Thunder will still be one of the top teams in the NBA’s Western Conference.
Regardless of where one stands, though, Nov. 28 will be "must-see" TV. Harden will make his return to Oklahoma City as a member of the Rockets when the Thunder host his new team in Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Harden has proven he's a worthy NBA starter. So at least until Nov. 28, for a change, it will probably be the Thunder and their fans that "fear the beard."