James Harden’s sudden rise this year was only tangentially related to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
OKC traded him days before the season, unloading him for prospects and picks before he’d leave for nothing when his contract ended in June.
It was a cold move that had little to do with basketball and everything to do with finances — the first real spell of tumult in a warm and fuzzy history of the franchise..
But despite the controversy, the Thunder were unfazed by Harden’s absence this year.
They were better on offence, rising their offensive efficiency to 112.4 from 109.8 last year. They were better on defence as well, finishing with the 4th-best defence after having the 10th-best with Harden.
Kevin Martin took some of the shots Harden left behind, and the rest were scarfed up by an emergent Reggie Jackson, a more aggressive Serge Ibaka, and the ever-willing Russell Westbrook.
The Thunder got rid of a guy that broke out as an elite scorer in 2012-13, and they still had a better season than they did last year.
But there’s a catch.
OKC survived the departure of Harden because he was always an inherently supplemental player to them.
Harden and Westbrook do the same things on the court, but Westbrook does them better. The redundancies in their respective skillsets meant that one of them had to take a backseat, and that guy was Harden.
Harden could have never tapped his potential as a 25 points per game scorer with the Thunder. There weren’t enough minutes in the game or balls on the court for Westbrook and Harden to be the best players they could be simultaneously.
Harden had to leave to put up Westbrook-type stats — he would have never done it in OKC.
Unless Westbrook got hurt.
But that’s what happened today, when the Thunder announced that Westbrook is out indefinitely with a torn meniscus — the first time he will miss a basketball game due to injury in his high school, college, and pro careers combined.
If Harden was on the Thunder right now, he could be deputized into the Westbrook role.
The Harden trade never hurt the Thunder because they never really needed him. Now they do.
Maybe that’s not enough to definitively say that OKC messed up by trading him. But it’s undeniable that the Thunder gave away their ability to survive a Westbrook injury when they gave away Harden.
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