Who Will Fill the James Harden Void for Oklahoma City Thunder in Playoffs?
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The Oklahoma City Thunder's Olympic triad of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden is no more. OKC hasn't had a problem with that so far, but the story could be different come the postseason.
Though the Thunder have cruised to the top of the West even after jettisoning Harden, they are unlikely to find the sailing as smooth after April 20. The competition will be tougher, and the reigning Western Conference champs have a target on their backs.
Over 20 games in the 2012 playoffs, Harden averaged 16.3 points on 43.5 percent shooting, 5.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.6 steals per game. That brand of all-around contribution is nearly impossible to replace.
Though it seemed Harden still suffered aftereffects from the elbow Metta World Peace delivered to his temple late last season, his value in attracting defenders was nearly as valuable as his tremendous production.
Ultimately, OKC does not have any one player who can supplement Durant and Westbrook like Harden did; no one can completely replace his dynamism. Therefore, the Thunder will have to rely on something akin to a bullpen-by-committee.
This is the motley crew of candidates who will have to coalesce in the postseason if they want OKC fans to forget about The Beard.
Serge Ibaka, PF
Serge Ibaka has made great strides with his mid-range shooting. His scoring average is up to 13.2 points per game, an increase of over four points a night from last season. Amazingly, his shooting percentage is also up by more than three percent to 56.9.
The biggest jump in Ibaka's shooting has come 16 to 23 feet from the hoop. He attempts 3.7 shots per game from that range, up from 2.6 last season, and he converts those long-range two-pointers at an admirable 47 percent clip (per HoopData.com).
Even Manu Ginobili has taken notice:
Manu Ginobili must be an advanced stats guy - on Serge: "Ibaka is shooting way better than last year or at least it looks like it."— Tas Melas (@TasMelas) March 11, 2013
In last year's playoffs, Ibaka posted 9.8 points per game, which was slightly above his regular-season average. He will need to replicate his newfound slick shooting in the coming postseason.
The threat of the Serge Protector as a perimeter shooter does wonders to draw the defense apart and create opportunities for the Thunder's dynamic duo.
Kevin Martin, SG
Unquestionably, Kevin Martin has been OKC's sixth man this year; he's averaged 27.9 minutes in 74 games, all off the bench.
Martin came over in the trade for Harden and has proved a serviceable replacement for last year's Sixth Man of the Year.
Though he doesn't rack up the boards and dimes like Harden, Martin has averaged a tidy 14 points per game on 44.5 percent shooting.
One significant disadvantage is that Martin has only been to the playoffs once in eight seasons; he saw six games with the Sacramento Kings back in 2006.
In three seasons, Harden has played in 43 playoff games, so it will interesting to watch whether Martin blossoms or wilts under the brightest lights.
Thabo Sefolosha, SG
Thabo Sefolosha is one of OKC's veterans and boasts 52 games of playoff experience. He has posted 7.5 points per game this season, the highest scoring average of his career over any full season.
Though splits can sometimes be misleading, Sefolosha saw a significant drop in his numbers from February to March, which is not heartening for the postseason.
After averaging 9.9 points per game on 51.3 percent shooting in the calendar's shortest month, he declined to 6.5 points on 45.9 percent in March despite seeing roughly the same minutes.
Sefolosha's offense is too inconsistent to rely on, but at least he always plays great defense and rebounds well for a 2-guard.
He also scores opportunistically, so you can pencil him in for six points a night. Something like his explosion against the Houston Rockets (a possible first-round opponent) on Feb. 20—28 points on 11-of-16 shooting—would be a great surprise for OKC.
Nick Collison, PF
Nick Collison has enjoyed the most efficient season of his career, shooting better than 60 percent from the field for the first time as a pro.
While Collison only posts 5.3 points per game, it's a slight improvement on his numbers from last season. Interestingly, Collison shoots better than 57 percent from a range of 10 to 15 feet, but he only attempts 0.1 shots per game from that area (per HoopData).
Though he averaged only 3.5 points per game in last year's playoffs, Collison might be poised for a miniature coming-out party. With just a couple of mid-range jumpers per game, he could average more like seven or eight points. That would go very nicely with four boards.
Derek Fisher, PG
Derek Fisher has a handful of rings and the clutch gene etched in his DNA. But he's also 38 years old.
After shafting the Dallas Mavericks with a retirement that didn't even last as long as Kris Humphries' marriage, Fisher made his way back to OKC, where he knew he'd have a legitimate shot at another championship.
And if you think that Fisher can no longer bring it when it matters, just check his line from OKC's 100-88 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night: 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
While he's unlikely to score in bunches, Fisher is a player I want on the court for an inbounds play with a chance at a game-winning shot.
Reggie Jackson, PG
Can the Thunder win a title this year without James Harden?
Reggie Jackson only averages 13.3 minutes, but don't nap on the second-year pro out of Boston College. His stats are admirable when projected per 36 minutes, as Jackson would average nearly 13 points per game.
While he has been dreadful from three-point range (24.7 percent), he's proved a capable scorer and a great spark off the bench. Six times this season, he has scored in double digits.
Jackson shares a name with Mr. October, but some clutch scoring in the playoffs will have people calling him Mr. May.
While no one player could replace James Harden, this mix of experienced veterans (Ibaka, Collison, Sefolosha and Fisher) with promising postseason newbies (Martin and Jackson) could very well surpass Harden's production and power OKC to a title.
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