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What does Oklahoma City look like without James Harden?

Nov 1, 2012, 11:00 AM EDT

Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant AP

Getting hit with the cold truth hurts. Getting hit with it 37 times? Ask a Thunder fan how that feels. Here’s the truth, and it has been evident long before last night’s coming out party: James Harden is a star in this league.

And no matter how you try to rationalize trading Harden while competing for a championship, Oklahoma City is worse off for it – at least for this season. That has less to do with skill than it does with fit, because Kevin Martin has long been one of the most underrated and efficient scorers in the league. Things will just look very different. Here’s how.

16-23 Feet: Getting Crowded

Don’t cry for the “lost art of the mid-range game.” It’s the worst shot in basketball, and teams that rely heavily on it typically don’t have much offensive success. To that point, the Charlotte Bobcats, offensive juggernaut they were, led the league in shot attempts from 16-23 feet last season.

Oklahoma City took the 7th least attempts from 16-23 feet last year, but all that’s about to change. Kevin Martin may be ultra-efficient, but he still likes to create space and fire off his jumper from this distance on the floor. Martin typically averages nearly 5 attempts per game from 16-23 feet. Compare that to James Harden, a guy who rarely pulled up for long-twos, as he shot exactly one per game last year.

With Westbrook and Ibaka firing from this distance more and more as the years get on, the Thunder offense could be a little streakier than it has been in the past. The Thunder did shoot the league’s best percentage from here last year (42.6%), but buyer beware. There was better stuff on the menu when Harden was creating options that no other player on the current roster is capable of replicating.

Nick Collison loses his dance partner

Part of the reason Harden was able to have so much success in the pick-and-roll was because of the chemistry he enjoyed with Nick Collison. Apart from being a great screener, Collison knew exactly when to slip, or re-set, or simply leave Harden to his own devices. It would be a shock if Martin enjoyed the same success with Collison, as he looks almost solely to free himself, rarely feeding the roll man with a clever bounce pass.

And that hurts. Like an offensive lineman in football that gets sick of pass protection and just wants to run the ball a few times, big men in basketball setting screens want to roll hard to the rim and get rewarded with the ball every now and then. Collison has routinely been one of the league leaders in plus/minus, but without being so closely attached to Harden, his effectiveness should dwindle a bit.

Pin-down screens for all

Ultimately, it’s Scott Brooks who faces the biggest task of replacing Harden with Martin, simply because Harden was such a good “freelance” player. Even though Martin is actually a very good isolation scorer, he’s by no means a primary ballhandler. While Harden could get you in your stuff and out of it when it got bad, Martin can only finish the equation.

What’s that mean? More Eric Maynor handling the ball with the second unit, and a whole handful of the “Kevin Durant package” plays, which are basically pin-down screens, designed for Martin. Although he’s still far from a creative offensive mind, Brooks has gotten better at getting Durant the ball closer to the basket. Doing the same with Martin is a good idea, as he’s led the NBA three of the last four years in free throw attempts per 36 minutes.

Stagnant offense

This should be the big fear for the Thunder – the offense becoming too stagnant. Oklahoma City sometimes has a tendency to take turns, which can really leave them without any flow. Usually, Westbrook or Durant are so good and so unstoppable that it doesn’t matter, and that will be the case again this year. But once playoff time rolls around, the Thunder will miss the ability of Harden to break down the defense as a primary ballhandler.

Softer defense

Harden doesn’t measure out as a great defender, but the raw goods were there. Martin, meanwhile, doesn’t offer much resistance at all, as he’s not laterally quick or nearly strong enough to deny anyone spots on the floor. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, but at least Harden had the physical ability to hang with a Dwyane Wade type – Martin just doesn’t.

A little more frail

Okay, this is the actual biggest fear – Kevin Martin missing significant time. Martin missed 26 games last year, 36 three years ago, 31 the year before that, and 21 the year before that. Harden, meanwhile, has only missed 10 games over his first three seasons.

Although stylistically they’ll go through changes, it’s important to remember that Oklahoma City was bold enough to draft Harden where they did in the first place. If they are so willing to hit the reset button over a few million dollars every year, it seems almost likely that there’s something underneath the surface that we can’t quite see. Until that reason surfaces, however, take the Thunder for what they are — a less varied, less durable, less likely championship contender.

  1. 4thquartermagic - Nov 1, 2012 at 11:42 AM

    Great stuff here.

    Last year my brother and I had a bet regarding where James Harden was drafted. Feeling we had was that OKC scouts found a gem in the middle round. Being casual B-Ball fans, we couldn’t even think if he played college ball.

    Long story short, when we found out he was a 23 y/o former lottery pick, we were stunned. Seemed like the dude came out of nowhere. But once we saw where he was drafted we said to each other he SHOULD be that damn good.

    Needless to say but pointed out brilliantly here, OKC is worse without James.

    However when you compare that $80 mil/contract against his putrid disappearing act in the finals (dude was horrific every game) you can see why OKC decided to hedge their bets.

    • cosanostra71 - Nov 1, 2012 at 2:45 PM

      Harden was a superstar who won the Pac-10 Player of the Year and a top 3 pick… this was only three years ago…

      • 4thquartermagic - Nov 1, 2012 at 3:00 PM

        Understood. Point I was trying to make is that he didn’t have the level of hype coming in that a top 3 player typically gets. Dude can ball but early on the only reason he was a household name was because of his beard.

        Either way I look forward to watching him play as an alpha dog. Which is what a #3 pick should be.

    • loungefly74 - Nov 1, 2012 at 4:06 PM

      i disagree in some part…because it seems like now the only one to get hype is the #1 pick…MAYBE…the #2. thats it.

      • 4thquartermagic - Nov 1, 2012 at 4:14 PM

        Guess the talent pool is not as full as it once was.

      • loungefly74 - Nov 1, 2012 at 4:23 PM

        i think our mindset is the year of the draft is more about…”who is #1″. and as time goes by…its more about/or becomes…”wow…that guy went #(x) in the draft? what a steal!” i think of the 1998 draft as a great example. to be quite honest, i knew very little about harden when he came out. (i think that had to due with his team, az st. not doing well in the tourney)

  2. dominwindhamnh - Nov 1, 2012 at 11:48 AM

    This writer is an idiot. The mid range game “doesn’t matter”, then he says the league’s best team last year had the best % from mid range…which is it, moron? Another fan of the “new stats” who isnt smart enough to realize most of them are worthless rehash of existing numbers…

  3. gaykegayden - Nov 1, 2012 at 12:00 PM

    Seriously? I’d say that you’re giving yourself way to much credit by claiming to be a “casual bball fan” after reading that comment. Harden a mid round pick that came from nowhere? Pull yourself out from underneath a rock.

  4. realninerfan22 - Nov 1, 2012 at 12:00 PM

    To say the mid range game is the worst shot in basketball proves you have no clue about basketball. Just ask players like mj, Kobe, karl malone, chris webber, kg, rip Hamilton, ray allen, sam cassel, d wade. They all made their living shooting the mid range jumper it open up your game, keeps the defense honest. The only reason it crowds the paint is because theres not enough players that can shoot that on a consistant basis. Its either 3s or a drive to the hoop. If u have 5 players who can shoot that shot u could run pick in roll from anywhere on the court, it keeps pressure on the defense. You have no clue what your talking about. Go learn the game kid..

    • Kurt Helin - Nov 1, 2012 at 10:09 PM

      I really don’t want to have to explain rudimentary statistics and hoops to you, do some research, but the fact is that shots at the rim and the corner three are more efficient — you get more points per shot attempt than other spots on the floor over the course of the season. The caveat is IF YOU HAVE THE GUYS THAT CAN MAKE THOSE SHOTS. If you have Rip Hamilton (of five years ago) or Dirk Nowitzki then them shooting the midrange shot is more efficient, as it is if Kobe gets to the elbow or other specific shots within the midrange. But on the whole you want guys to get to the rim and not settle as much, to draw fouls and shoot closer to the basket. It’s not that the midrange is evil and a shot that should never be taken, but it should not be a team’s bread and butter.

  5. SOBEIT - Nov 1, 2012 at 12:56 PM

    It will be interesting to see how fans and media react to the situation in OKC. The Rockets are the Rockets and most expect them to be ok to bad…so anything above that is an improvement. But the Rockets got more than just a good player…they got a marketable player along with Lin. We shall see how they perform on the court.

    OKC..they will be under a microscope all year. Have a good game…”oh it ain’t that big a deal we lost Harden”…have a bad game (especially against a playoff contender) or bad stretch…”the sky is falling and it was the worst trade of the off season.” Well that’s my prediction anyway.

    For me, they are now one of the teams who expect to be in the championship game…and win. So does it really matter what happens in the season, just as long as they get to the playoffs. That is when the real evaluation of the Harden trade will show it’s value as being smart or dumb.

  6. j0esixpack - Nov 1, 2012 at 1:39 PM

    Is OKC better without Harden?

    No

    Is Harden worth his $80 million contract?

    No

    That’s where the disconnect lies.

    • therealhtj - Nov 1, 2012 at 2:26 PM

      Well if he averages HALF of what he did last night, he’s still worth 80 mil over 5 especially considering the crop of stiffs that got max deals this last off season.

      • dls612 - Nov 1, 2012 at 3:11 PM

        Agreed! This dude may be the truth!

  7. bbeaman78 - Nov 1, 2012 at 2:04 PM

    I think that all the doubters will eat their words. Harden was a ghost in the finals. He missed lay ups and dunks against Miami. He disappears most of the time as a scorer in the 4th. He had a huge game against the spurs in the playoffs and that was it.

    Defensively he was not great and known for flopping. The fact he wouldn’t accept less a 1 mil less to stay tells you he is a “me first” player.

    Presti has built this team through the draft and his great eye for talent. Add in the team concept and youth, players like hasheem thabeet, perry jones III, and Jeremy Lamb will form a good young bench and possibly develop further.

    • loungefly74 - Nov 1, 2012 at 4:14 PM

      sorry..i’m judging harden over what he has done in his entire career so far…not just one series. if i remember right, he was a very big reason OKC did great the past few years. lets not act like he is a bum all of the sudden because he wanted a few more dollars. its a business, lets not forget that. also, there are other players with less talent making as much or more money. i give the rockets huge props to have the “sand” to go out and get JH.

  8. scalfor3 - Nov 1, 2012 at 3:12 PM

    Harden is great and will put up all star numbers (I’m guessing around 22 and 7-8 assists per game) in Houston. He’d also never get the amount of usage to reach those numbers in OKC. OKC is clearly worse off this season by losing him, but lets not act like Harden would be putting up 37 and 12 coming off the bench. I think the more interesting question is whether Harden winds up being better than Westbrook.

  9. rocirius - Nov 1, 2012 at 3:30 PM

    Great analysis and great article! I totally agree about the health factor. I think Collison will find a way to be just as effective with Maynor, but otherwise I have the same concerns as the author. However, I still believe that Harden was not worth the max to OKC and that this team will be in the Finals with a very good chance to win it all.

    I disagree with the author on his opinion about “resetting”. I think the front office is making a smart gamble by essentially saying that they expect the team to advance just as far with this group as they would have with Harden, and that the young assets/draft picks will make their team contenders longer because they won’t have such a top heavy team contract-wise. They are the current model of building a successful, contending franchise and I expect that to continue.

  10. rocketsbb - Nov 1, 2012 at 4:55 PM

    Kmart is not efficient whatsoever. He shot 41% last year and takes stupid shots

  11. lakerluver - Nov 1, 2012 at 4:59 PM

    OKC traded away their 2nd best player. Harden’s going to be a superstar and better than Westbrook.

  12. lakerluver - Nov 1, 2012 at 5:03 PM

    Martin won’t give them 12 assists in a week, much less in one game.

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