The James Harden trade was viewed as one of the most rushed and foolish trades in NBA history. Harden is arguably the top shooting guard in the NBA and the Oklahoma City Thunder have appeared to be missing a piece ever since. Well, here we are. The pieces that they have are here in full, Kevin Martin is gone and the Thunder have to effectively turn lemons into lemonade. How do you replace James Harden?
You can obviously make a direct connection between Harden and the acquisitions that the Thunder attained for him, but that’s not fair. Jeremy Lamb is not James Harden. He might end up becoming a very nice player, but Harden’s skill set is hard to replicate. Steven Adams looks like he might be solid, but again, none of these players will ever be the top player at their position. The Thunder, their fans and basketball pundits need to stop viewing it this way. OKC needs to be viewed by the sum of it’s parts. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant garner a larger spotlight, but this team operates as a whole. That means the six minutes Perry Jones gives you in the second quarter needs to matter. That means Reggie Jackson needs to continue to improve and become one of the best off the bench options in the league. That means Jeremy Lamb needs to become a knock down shooter and creator off of the dribble. Everyone on the team needs to pull extra weight in order for them to be back where they were years ago and compete with teams like the Spurs, Warriors and the Heat.
The thing that people are forgetting and overlooking is the fact that Kevin Durant got much better and evolved his game extensively since Harden’s departure. His ball-handling, passing and overall feel of the game looks more refined and he is finally becoming deft at making his teammates better. Russell Westbrook has gotten better. His mid-range jumper is unguardable as is, but he’s been hitting it at a much higher rate since Harden’s departure. As the stars of the Thunder have improved, we have seen improvement all across the board. Despite the war of the contracts with Harden and Ibaka, Ibaka has improved as a player since Harden left. He still has PLENTY of room to grow and provides the weak side defense that allow the Thunder turn up defensive pressure at a moments notice.
Now it’s on the youngins. It’s on Scott Brooks to make the necessary moves (get rid of Perkins) to put this team in a position to compete for a title. That includes giving his young players confidence. Don’t play Derek Fisher or Thabo Sefolosha in the last two minutes of a game that’s already decided when you have young players that are going to play a pivotal role in your team’s future success sitting on the bench. Encourage them and let them grow into their roles.
This may be crazy to say, but confidence will be the Oklahoma City Thunder’s biggest concern this year. Yes, I know Russell Westbrook outfits let us know that he is quite possibly the most confident player in the league and Kevin Durant is the clear #2 player on Earth, but I’m talking everyone else. Will Ibaka keep shooting if his first few jumpers don’t fall? Will Lamb play passively out of fear that Derek Fisher will replace him? Can Steven Adams play with consistency? Will they get anything out of Hasheem Thabeet/Perry Jones? Only time will tell with these guys.
Moral of the story, there is no replacing Harden.