How Oklahoma City's massive trade of James Harden will reflect the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2012-2013 season.
Houston Rockets get: G James Harden, C Cole Aldrich, G/F Daequan Cook, G/F Lazar Hayward
Oklahoma City Thunder get: SG Kevin Martin, SG Jeremy Lamb, two 1st round picks (via Toronto and Dallas), 2nd round pick (via Charlotte)
The writing was on the wall, but typing it out is still shocking: reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden has been traded by the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Houston Rockets. The former Sonics dealt their first-ever draft pick, who helped build them up into a Western Conference Champion, not as a basketball decision, but one that was mostly business.
Of course the prevailing question that most Lakers fans have is, "How does affect the purple and gold going forward?" The other small percentage is no doubt bemoaning the fact that Mitch Kupchak didn't trade for Harden first.
As C.A. Clark pointed out in his shotgun thread today regarding the trade, there's little doubt that Oklahoma City just got worse. However, you didn't need to read this post to know that. The Thunder didn't want to incur the big luxury tax bill they'd be getting the next four or five springs, and it's hard to blame them--after all, it's not my or your money. However, in doing so, OKC lost their third best player, but by all accounts their best play-maker, especially in regards to the fourth quarter. The enduring memory I have of the wing trio of Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant would be them raining down jumpers and circus shots on the Lakers game after game in the Western Conference semifinals. Regardless of how you view Westbrook's shot selection or Durant's lack of physicality, there's no doubt that adding a lethal jump shooter and finisher in James Harden made them extremely dangerous offensively. He was the primary facilitator behind their crunchtime scoring, and now with only days left until the regular season starts, Westbrook or Eric Maynor will have to assume a lot of that responsibility after a month of doing otherwise in training camp. With Harden, the Thunder could be solved scoring-wise--evidenced by their Finals loss--but as each of the players grows into their mid-twenties (!), they were only going to get better. The Thunder just lost one-third of that equation.
On the wing, the Lakers should have a much easier time with OKC. Metta World Peace, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash were never, ever going to be able to stop those three players, even with Dwight Howard guarding the paint (because honestly, the Lakers would need two Dwight Howards to do so...get to work, scientists). However, with Harden gone, MWP should be able to front Durant a bit more effectively, while the rest of the team will have to leak out on help defenses to contain Westbrook. It still won't be easy, but the Lakers should be able to rely on the strategy of letting guys like Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha and Eric Maynor beat them at the end of games. That's a much safer gamble than watching a future All-Star like Harden shoot in the fourth.
Less talked about is how much the Thunder are losing on defense. The bearded pride of Artesia High is just coming into his own as a defender: a strong, agile guard who is able to use his massive wingspan and his 6'5" length to irritate opposing scorers and block passing lanes. OKC is losing a player who was looking more and more like an elite defender-in-waiting--now they'll have to replace his fourth quarter presence with Sefolosha (who would leave them with a deficit offensively), Maynor or Kevin Martin (who are both limited defensively, which is a compliment in Martin's case). Kobe shot only 42% against OKC in the postseason, scoring 31 points on 26 shots a game with Harden and Sefolosha making a second home in Bryant's immediate airspace. With one half of that duo gone and two more extremely dangerous offensive weapons to check in Nash and Howard, Harden's absence will be just as stark defensively unless another player on the Thunder (Jeremy Lamb, perhaps?) is able to step up unexpectedly.
Finally, this is going to affect the Thunder emotionally, at least for the immediate future. The Thunder are set up more like a fraternity than a basketball team in some respects, so seeing their continuity disturbed in such a sudden and drastic manner is sure to leave an impression. Hopefully for Lakers fans, LA is able to take advantage of any early swoon by OKC and begin to build a gap between the two teams for home court advantage in the playoffs. Kobe and Company can say whatever they want, but no one has any desire to play a Game 7 in that Oklahoma City arena.
As for Harden's replacements, OKC did get some value out of letting their third-best player go. Kevin Martin is still an above-average scorer, only two seasons removed from 23 ppg and 38% from distance. He'll be the new sixth man for the Thunder, and should be able to replicate some of Harden's production by curling off screens and settling for spot-up shots, both of which are his specialty. However, he's not a great passer, doesn't handle the ball well and defends like his ankle joints and feet have been welded together. This is a huge departure from Harden's playmaking, handle and defense. Kevin Martin is a solid scorer, but he's replacing a top-25 NBA player. It's a significant drop-off.
Jeremy Lamb was the 12th overall pick in June, and has garnered comparisons to 2-guards ranging from Hall of Famer Reggie Miller to...Kevin Martin, oddly enough. Lamb's defensive potential is far more vast than Martin's and reports out of Rockets camp was that he looks like he'll be able to contribute a bit this year. He may turn into a steal for the Thunder down the road, but obviously he's no replacement for Harden either. Lamb will be getting shotgunned straight into a brawl for the Western Conference crown, perhaps in high leverage minutes and important spots. I'd expect a bit of a learning curve for him as a 20-year-old.
It's hard to predict seeing as it's so soon after the deal went down, but what Lakers fans have to watch out for is the Thunder adjusting their offensive and defensive philosophies on the fly to better fit their new personnel. They've still got two of the best five players in the league, which I'm sure people are discounting, but they go from being almost unstoppable in crunch time to merely very difficult to beat. From now on, the Thunder are going to have to rely on their ability to stop oppositions, not just outscore them. OKC finished 9th in the league last season in defensive efficiency, but they'll have to be even better than that this year. Similar to the suffocating perimeter defense Dwyane Wade and LeBron James play, the Thunder--Durant and Westbrook in particular--have to be willing to use their length, strength and athleticism outside of the paint to force turnovers and block passing lanes. They can't just be willing to defend; like LeBron and Wade, they have to begin to take pride in their defense and desire to be absolutely relentless. That hasn't happened yet.
This isn't a farfetched scenario, seeing as the Thunder still have Serge Ibaka, the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year and the key to their entire defensive scheme, as well as Kendrick Perkins. While Harden changed the Thunder from being merely great offensively to excellent offensively, Ibaka changes the defense from adequate to excellent. To be honest, Lakers fans should be lamenting the fact that GM Sam Presti decided to keep Ibaka over Harden. On the other side of the key, Kendrick Perkins has historically guarded Pau Gasol as well as any man in the league, and should be able to do at least a serviceable job against Howard.
I want to make this point clear to Lakers fans everywhere: the Thunder can still win the NBA title. What it will take is wholesale changes in on-court philosophy in regards to the two All-Stars now shifting focus to being the on-ball defenders their 2012 Finals opponents were. If Westbrook, Durant, Sefolosha and Kevin Martin can pressure opposing teams, then they'll still have a shot at defeating the Lakers and Heat. Coach Scott Brooks may have made these changes already knowing full well that Harden could be dealt, but from what I've seen in the preseason, the 2012-2013 version of the Thunder wasn't going to be wholly different than the 2011-2012 version. Such a radical sea change in how the team plays basketball is pretty improbable considering the timing of this trade, but not entirely impossible.
This trade changed the Lakers from being co-favorites for the Western Conference to the near consensus pick. But as evidenced by a 0-fer for the preseason, LA still has a lot of work to do before they're a fully functional machine. The Thunder did not have to make this deal, but by doing so, they got a decent haul in return for someone who's sure to be an All-Star down the road. There's no doubt in my mind that they should have ridden out Harden's contract to try and win a title this season, though it could have potentially served as a distraction for the team. However, this isn't the end of the Oklahoma City Thunder, title contenders. With some changes from within, they could still be in the championship hunt, as early as this year. OKC still has two of the best five players in the NBA, which is a "bad situation" that any franchise in the league would take. On the whole, Lakers fans should be relieved, but still wary.