The Oklahoma City Thunder Are Still Championship-Caliber Without James Harden

12/15/12 in NBA   |   Jnewman482   |   134 respect

Dec 4, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) brings the ball up the court during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY SportsWhen the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets before the 2012-13 NBA season started, it seemed as though the Thunder organization had decided that Sam Presti needed to trade away its chances of winning the title this season in order to save money and protect the team’s future.

However, 23 games into the season, the Thunder are 19-4 and have the best record in the NBA. It looks like they are still a championship-caliber team and it looks like Sam Presti is an even bigger genius than we had thought.

As great as Harden is, the Thunder have found ways to replace his efficient production and his ability to create. Westbrook has become more of a distributor, Serge Ibaka has contributed five more points a game and Kevin Martin has been the sixth-best shooter in the NBA from behind the three-point line.

Last season when Westbrook was on the floor with Harden, there was less of an onus on the star point guard to create offense for his teammates and he was often criticized for taking too many shots a game.

However, despite the fact that Westbrook averaged just 5.5 assists last season, he posted at least eight assists a game in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons. Thus, it should be no surprise that he is currently fourth this season in the NBA in assists per game.

As for Harden, he has proven to be worthy of his five-year, $80 million contract, averaging 24.8 points a game for the Rockets.

The one down-side for Houston is that Harden's field-goal percentage has dropped by six percent this season, but that should be expected since he spent a lot of time going up against second units and benefited from playing against defenses that prioritized guarding Westbrook and Durant when he was with Oklahoma City. 

Yet, for the same reasons that Harden had an advantage when he was with the Thunder, Kevin Martin has been able to score at a much more efficient rate with Oklahoma City. Thus, Martin hasn't been as much of a downgrade as it might have seemed like he would be, which has been the most determining factor in the Thunder's ability to remain an elite team.

Dec 9, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Kevin Martin (23) attempts a shot against the Indiana Pacers during the first half at Chesapeake Energy Arena.  Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY SportsDuring the 2011-12 season, Kevin Martin was Houston’s leading scorer, so he was the main focus of most opponents’ defensive game plans. Because of that, he shot poorly from the field, making just 41.3 percent of his shots.

Now that he is on a team where he is the third option on offense, Kevin Martin is getting open looks and has been connecting on 46.4 percent of his shots. 

It's uncertain if that kind of efficiency will be enough to replace James Harden's ability to create in the halfcourt in the postseason when teams tend to work harder on defense, but one reason to still expect great things from the Thunder in the playoffs is that they still have incredible team speed to go along with their talent.

Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka compose one of the youngest and most athletic trios in the NBA and their ability to cover ground quickly makes life difficult for teams on both ends of the floor.

There is no question that any general manager in the league would rather have James Harden than Kevin Martin, but Sam Presti made a great trade considering the fact that he needed to make a deal, and this Thunder team will be tough to beat in a seven-game series in the playoffs.
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