As good as James Harden was last season for the Oklahoma City Thunder, he’s not as great of a player as he thinks he is. Breaking the financial boundaries for your third best player isn’t a no-no for a small market team, so the Thunder traded the 2012 Sixth Man of the Year to Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and draft picks.
This was classic Thunder. This was the same situation two years ago with Jeff Green, who was very popular on an emerging team, but not someone who deserves breaking the mold for. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook; those are the guys the Thunder are letting pull the wagon forward and into the future. Harden? As good as he is, and the Thunder threw almost everything they had at him, is just another scorer. Kevin Martin, who averaged 17.1 points per game last season, is also one; a proven one, and now finally on a team with some aspirations.
It’s hard to understand what Harden did here. According to the rumors, he was offered four years, $55 million. Not the maximum contract, but almost as good. The most the Thunder were able to offer him without committing nearly their entire salary cap for the next four years to four players (Ibaka’s getting paid handsomely as well). And Harden refused so he’ll get a max extension from the Rockets they promised him.
That’s $1.25 more a season. We can’t judge people for wanting to make the most of financial opportunities, but it seems like petty money when you’re making over $10 million anyway, especially when you’re breaking up an offensive trio that went to the Olympics together and was (and still is, just without him) on course to win multiple NBA titles, or at least challenge for a few.
There’s no doubt that Martin and Lamb won’t be able to replace Harden’s offensive efficiency. He averaged 16.8 points and 3.7 assists last season, but the big numbers show up when you look at how good the Thunder were with him on the floor. Harden became the main ball-handler allowing Russell Westbrook to completely forget about passing and do what he loves best – score, shoot and play selfishly, which he does pretty well.
With Harden on the floor, the Thunder were on pace for 106.4 points per 48 minutes, instead of 95.4 without him. Their point differential was huge as well, with an average of 9.1 points with Harden as opposed to 1.4 without him. He’s also a solid defender, something Martin is not, and it’ll be interesting to see how the whole rotation things works out now that Harden is gone.
We’ve been taught again and again. Players do what feels right for them. There’s no such thing as NBA loyalty, and your own individual achievements and career comes first. I’m guessing this wasn’t just a money matter for Harden; he wanted a commitment and deceleration that he’s just as good and important to the Oklahoma City Thunder as Durant and Westbrook are. He’s not, so he moves on to a team who doesn’t mind having him as their number 1 guy.
Professionally, I don’t think it’s such a huge loss for the Thunder. Kevin Martin is a bit of a soloist, but I think he can be shaped and changed to fit the Thunder’s system which lets face it; isn’t the most complicated offense in the world. Socially, this might impact Durant and Westbrook a bit more than just making them shrug their shoulders and welcome a new teammate.