Oklahoma City Thunder: Have They Improved Since Trading James Harden?

When the Oklahoma City Thunder sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets before the season began, the media response was almost uniformly negative.

In the eyes of many, the Thunder were giving up a surefire chance at a title just to avoid the luxury tax. Surely, the dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would flounder without their Olympian sixth man to spell them and occasionally take over a few games himself. And really, Kevin Martin was great, but he could hardly replace the production of one the best young shooting guards in the game, could he?

This trade was doomed to fail from the start.

Except it hasn’t really worked out that way. The Thunder are having their best season and are currently the favorite to emerge with a Western Conference title. Durant is having a career year and is being seriously considered as an MVP candidate. Westbrook shook off a rough start and is back to being his old dynamic self. Martin is one of the better sixth men in the league and his excellent 3-point shooting is a hallmark of the second unit. Serge Ibaka is having a career season and has illustrated that he can be a top-flight player on both offense and defense. He’s probably one of the 10 best power forwards in the game right now.

Instead of regressing without Harden around, just about everyone on the team has gotten better. This begs the question: Was the trade actually a good move? Did it improve the team?

This would seem like an absurd notion because not only is Harden a great player, but he was always a team player, willingly accepting his sixth-man role and never causing a fuss. Additionally, his time with the Rockets has shown that he’s one of the best shooting guards in the game and can easily be the leader of a team. How could the Thunder be improving without him?

Because they haven’t been able to rest on his laurels any more, which means everyone has stepped their game up.  Last season, Durant and Westbrook knew there would be a portion of the game where a lot of the offense would be coming from Harden. This year, that cushion no longer exists, meaning they’ve had to put more pressure on themselves.

The result of that is that Durant has managed to become an even better player than he was before and at times he looks downright superhuman. He can take an endless barrage of shots on certain nights and it’ll seem like he makes all of them. Durant’s game this season has been positively transcendent.

Also, the departure of Harden may have been better for team chemistry than we initially realized. There’s only so many shots to go around, and when you have three potential franchise players trying to split up those shots, it might not always be smooth. Granted, Harden was never one to complain about the shots he was getting, but having three players who all want to take the last shot is going to some friction, even if it might not be readily apparent on the court.

The Thunder’s offense looks smoother now. Martin makes more sense than Harden did in the sixth-man role. Those who complained that Harden was a superior talent were missing the point. In retrospect, Harden was overqualified to be a sixth man.

Martin, on the other hand, fits the role perfectly. Much like Jamal Crawford, he’s a solid starting two-guard, but he becomes much better when you bring him off the bench. He can give the Thunder the instant offense they need, while knowing to cede control to Durant and Westbrook in crunch time.

The Thunder are quite a lucky franchise. They used three straight lottery picks on three elite players (Durant in 2007, Westbrook in 2008 and Harden in 2009) and became a title contender. Then, they trade one of those players and it somehow makes them even better.

It’s strange to think about, but that’s the way things are in Oklahoma City. The Thunder are the scariest team right now and trading away a top-15 player somehow took them to another level. It made the other players on the team work a little harder and discover they could play even better than they are now.

The rest of the West will have a tough time taking them down come playoff time.

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