Life After Harden
The Oklahoma City Thunder stunned the basketball world by trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets shortly before the start of the season. The defending Western Conference champions have a 6-3 record going into Friday's game and have won five of their last six games.
Russell Westbrook is one of the top players in the NBA in the mold of a hybrid point guard who looks to score. He was inconsistent this week, which is what many have come to criticize about his game. He is an explosive, athletic guard who routinely creates space and collapses defenses, but can display poor shot selection (39 percent on the year) and is averaging three turnovers per game.
Thabo Sefolosha isn’t asked to do much offensively, but is tasked with defending the top perimeter threat most nights. He is a slasher who is also a threat to hit the three.
With the trade of James Harden, the key piece coming to Oklahoma City is Kevin Martin. The eighth-year guard is one of the most efficient scorers in the game and the change of secrecy hasn’t changed that. Martin is averaging 16 points on 46.9 percent from twos, 50 percent on threes and 94.2 percent from the free throw line. He is weak defensively and doesn’t dominate the ball like Harden does. How he provides offense with the second unit will be one of the top storylines to watch this year.
The Thunder also welcome back Eric Maynor, who missed most of last season with a major knee injury. He showed a good scoring punch with range on his jump shot in wins over Chicago and Detroit. His impact is minimal now, but he is an important piece moving forward.
Young prospects Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson and DeAndre Liggins have been non-factors.
Kevin Durant is the second best player in the world behind LeBron James and the best scorer in the game. He has been passive early in some games, but showed his knack to finish strong in a road win against Chicago. He is shooting a high percentage with better rebounding and assist numbers compared to his career averages.
Serge Ibaka’s extension may have led to Harden’s early exit. Offensively, his game is built around a good mid-range jumper. He is shooting over 50 percent and has scored in double figures in seven of nine games. On the other end of the floor, he is a dangerous shot blocker at nearly four blocks per game. He isn’t an elite player, but is clearly one of the best young bigs.
On a team with headline players, Nick Collison is a glue guy who brings toughness and defense. In 18 minutes, he’s averaging four points and three rebounds to form a trio of bigs for Oklahoma City.
Perry Jones III tallies eight minutes per game and is a player with excellent potential.
Kendrick Perkins’ hallmark is still his strong post defense. His numbers have declined in the early season with about $25 million owed to him over the next three years. He has just one block in the past five games and he is under five rebounds per game. In his ninth year, Perkins is still a solid center but his best days are behind him.
Hasheem Thabeet, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft, is with his fourth franchise and seeing back-up center duty at 11 minutes per game. Thabeet is a prime example how being able to handle college athleticism doesn't always translate to the NBA. He lacks physical strength and can’t create his own offense. He missed two games last week with an ankle injury.
Oklahoma City's losses have come against San Antonio, Memphis and Atlanta. The Thunder haven’t hit top gear yet with slow starts in numerous games last week. This is still one of the top teams in the NBA (4th in field goal percentage, 3rd in field goal percentage defense and 3rd in point differential). They are also the top free throw shooting team in the league for a group filled with players who can get to the rim. They are among the top tier in the Western Conference with a tough stretch this week against the Los Angeles Clippers, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.