From the moment James Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets, the pressure on Russell Westbrook increased. As part of the trade, the Oklahoma City Thunder received shooting guard Kevin Martin–a very good shooter (.448 from the field, .430 from beyond the arc and .899 from the line)–but he is not Harden.
Is James Harden missed in Oklahoma City? Photo Credit: Angel Blue, Flickr.com
Harden, the 2011-12 Sixth Man of the Year, gave the Thunder a completely different outlook on the offensive end. In many fourth-quarter situations, it was Harden who would bring the ball up the floor and it felt like he was more of a natural facilitator than Westbrook. Nevertheless, the Thunder front office felt as if it was time to move Harden following a breakdown in contract talks and it must be said–they did receive a very good package for the bearded one: Jeremy Lamb, Martin and a lottery-protected first-round draft pick. A move with a view to the future, it seems, but how would the trade impact OKC now? Surely there would be some kind of drop off?
Enter the 2012-13 Westbrook. As he has done every single year he’s been in the NBA–his numbers improved. People criticized his lack of assists–Westbrook improved this from 5.5 per game to a more impressive 7.8 per game. To be in the top 10 for scoring while averaging more than seven assists is commendable. He also has reduced his turnovers by 0.1 per game, which seems very minimal, but when he has increased his assists by more than two per game, it shows how much the former UCLA guard is improving.
Russell Westbrook is well on his way to becoming a superstar in this league. Photo Credit: Keith Allison, Flickr.com
Statistics aside, Westbrook has a special aura about him at the moment. He and two-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant have had a somewhat up-and-down relationship in the past, including a few on-court bust ups. This seems in the past now. Wins in Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks and against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Chesapeake Energy Arena have really thrown the Thunder right back into contention for the NBA title–if they weren’t there already. Westbrook is taking the big moments. This is all without mentioning the things we already know about the three-time All-Star: explosive athleticism, unstoppable penetration and a motor that doesn’t stop running. Perhaps his biggest attribute is his conditioning and avoidance of injury. Westbrook has never missed a game in high school, college or during his time in Oklahoma City.
The Thunder are 45-16 this season. It doesn’t seem as though Harden is being missed so far. The real test will come in the playoffs. However, if Durant continues to shoot lights out and Westbrook continues to grow into the role of point guard and co-captain, I see no reason why this team can’t make it back to where they did last year. Westbrook and Durant’s improvements have made Harden a distant memory. With that being said, it’s hard to see them overcoming Miami, given what played out last year.