The Thunder got the short end of the stick in the Harden trade, but that didn't matter last night.
"Martin is more of a scorer than James…James to me is just a heck of an all-around basketball player. He can score if he needs to score, but he also can run a team. He can drop dimes to guys, give them all the assists, he knows how to do those things. I think that's where they're different. Kevin is just a dynamic scorer, and James gives you a little bit of everything. He can run pick-and-roll and all that stuff, so you can almost have James as a scoring guard, but you can also play him at the point guard because he knows how to get guys involved."
--Byron Scott, Cleveland Cavaliers head coach
As of Monday, the Oklahoma City Thunder sat second in the Western Conference; the Houston Rockets sat just two spots out of the eighth seed. It’s clear that the trade that the two teams made with each other changed the dynamic of each club, but what’s not so obvious is who has truly won the exchange.
As of now, the Rockets are young, inexperienced, somewhat troubled, and still distant from championship banners. But looks can be deceiving.
The Thunder, still elite thus far, still young and promising, still looking for a greater glory, seems bound for rough times to come. That reason has every bit to do with the player that they lost to Houston as it does with the player(s) they received.
Simply put, the Thunder came out as the (slight) loser in the exchange.
James Harden was the perfect complement to Russell Westbrook, because Harden is a very skilled combo guard in disguise. Westbrook often attacks before initiating offense, but with Harden on the floor, he had more freedom.
With Westbrook, Harden was equally adept at creating plays as he was scoring or shooting, and was so strong with the ball as a playmaker that Westbrook could be his very best without overthinking his responsibilities.
And, Harden would pick up his slack.
Losing Harden, an All-American in high school and college playing on and off the ball, makes the Thunder offense more rigid.
Kevin Martin, a fine player himself, doesn’t have the same kind of ballhandling abilities that Harden possesses, thus placing more responsibility on Westbrook to work against his natural instincts. The knowledge of Westbrook’s point guard limitations is why the Thunder always finished games with Harden and Westbrook together, because either could create or score depending on the possession.
In Houston, the Rockets may have received a future All-Star backcourt. Jeremy Lin, like Harden, is well-skilled with and without the ball, and can create offense as a playmaker and scorer. Essentially, the Rockets have a similar skill chemistry brewing by comparison to the Thunder’s former Harden-Westbrook duo, and it will serve them greatly.
And it’s obvious to the Rockets’ famed general manager Daryl Morey what Harden means to the team, in the present and future.
As reported by The Shadow League’s own Maurice Bobb, Morey (a.k.a. “Dork Elvis”) believes in the future of Harden as someone to “build around”:
He's an elite offensive player, a complete player. He can pass, shoot, attack the basket. Even though he's a gold medalist, an Olympian and made the Finals, I still think he's an underrated player. He's absolutely someone who [can] step into the role of a star for the Houston Rockets.
Now the Rockets can proceed one step closer toward future glory, but what do the Thunder have in their replacement for their former 2009 bearded hero? Apparently, in Martin, the Thunder have a player closer to supplying their newfound needs than even they might have expected.
Martin owns a career scoring average of over 18 points per game. He’s never been a stat-stuffer anywhere else away from scoring and shooting, but he’s never had the overarching reputation of being less than any other category either. Essentially, K-Mart has been exactly what has been expected of him – an able-bodied sharpshooter who improves his teams doing just what he’s known for.
As Eddie Maisonet put it, “What were are concerns about losing Harden? Scoring off the bench? Efficient shooting? Three-point shooting? Getting to the line? Check. Check. Check. And.....check.”
The numbers seem to ring true, but replacement of duties isn’t the entirety of need. It’s about fit.
What long made the Thunder successful was that the almighty trio of Kevin Durant, Westbrook, and Harden all synced their skills into a cohesive attack machine with a fluid order of attack against opponents. Durant was the primary offensive threat away from the basket and threatening decoy, Westbrook was the electric attacker at the hoop, and Harden was the sweet combination of scoring and savvy, allowing any option that was taken away from any of the three to be used to elevate another’s strength.
Martin, to some degree, is a less dynamic, stand-still guard version of Durant. Neither handler or penetrator, but a shooter from afar and rarely seen by the rim.
In the end, the tale of the teams is a matter of vulnerability. The Rockets have long been embittered with it, from Stevie to Yao to Tracy, they have a new hope at hand. The SuperSon--, errr, Thunder, have been defined by their tenacity to secure their weaknesses.
The tale of the players? It’s a matter of fit and preparation.
All considered, we, the viewing public, the fans, the media, aren’t actually going to judge who won the trade based off of the first matchup between the teams – are we? Unless Martin or Harden plays the others’ shoes off, no one will know whose team will have the greater success until well into each player’s career with their present clubs.
As it stands, one man is becoming a superstar, and the other is redefining his role as a star player. It’s said that 1 + 1 = 3, and destiny is the hidden variable in the equation..
On November 28, both the Rockets and the Thunder did some math.
Martin was in the shadows, quiet, without pronouncement. But Harden, the former Thunderer, was unsettled. Quick to strike, hurried in finishing. Eager and dynamic, but unsure and without easiness.
Before the game, Royce Young caught the bearded one in audio. He had several thoughts, many feelings, and a palpable abundance of nerves about his homecoming.
He was happy:
Harden on what it was like seeing some of his old teammates: "Joyful."— Royce Young (@dailythunder) November 28, 2012
He was optimistic:
Harden on if he thinks Thunder fans will boo him: "Nah, they're not like that."— Royce Young (@dailythunder) November 28, 2012
He was deductive:
Harden on if he would've said things differently: "I thought I did sacrifice. I thought I did sacrifice coming off the bench."— Royce Young (@dailythunder) November 28, 2012
He was frank:
Harden on if he was shocked by the trade: "To be honest, I thought it was a very slight chance a trade would happen."— Royce Young (@dailythunder) November 28, 2012
And he was relieved:
Harden: "It feels good to compete against these guys and finally get it over with. Now I can continue on with the season."— Royce Young (@dailythunder) November 29, 2012
After starting the game scoreless for the entire first half, Harden finished the game with 17 points, two rebounds, three assists, and one steal. He wasn’t himself, as the entire game was seemingly won from the thunderous roars of Thunder fans surrounding the hardwood from the very beginning.
“Harden looked like he was in a daze,” remarked NBA TV analyst Dennis Scott. Scott was right on target. The daze lasted for the whole of the 48 minutes.
There were frequent dunks, drives, and swishes, but the game wasn’t about the Thunder; it was about whether Harden would have his way with his former comrades. The Rockets succumbed to the Thunder, 120-98, as the Rockets left the arena in a dejected fashion, and with Durant celebrating the victory for his newly-pieced squad.
Oh, and Martin ended up with 17 points, just like Harden. Not bad for an inferior replacement.