James Harden was a thorn in the Lakers' side in last year's playoffs, coming off the bench and carving up L.A.'s subpar substitutes. Harden's averages of 16.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game in the five-game series helped Oklahoma City make quick work of L.A. en route to the Thunder's run to the Finals.
Even with all of the Lakers' offseason moves to revamp their roster, the young Thunder with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the reigning Sixth Man of the Year in Harden were considered by many to still be the favorites in the Western Conference this year.
But now that Harden is on the Houston Rockets following a blockbuster trade, where does the West stand?
"Let’s not fall into that stupidity from our end," Pau Gasol said when a reporter suggested the Lakers were now clearly the No. 1 team in the conference. "We need to focus on what we have here. Get our guys healthy. Let’s see if Dwight (Howard) can play consistently with his back, that’s a concern. Let’s see if we can get Kobe (Bryant) back from his injury, that’s a concern. And let’s see if we can start learning everything that we have on our plate so we can start playing stress-free basketball."
Oklahoma City will undoubtedly miss 23-year-old Harden, but they got Kevin Martin out of the deal (career 18.4 points per game) and a skilled rookie in Jeremy Lamb who showed flashes of brilliance in his two years at Connecticut. Plus, they'll have a healthy Eric Maynor coming off the bench this year after he missed most of last season with a torn ACL.
Lakers coach Mike Brown credited Thunder general manager Sam Presti, whom he used to work with when they were both a part of the San Antonio Spurs, with also stockpiling draft picks in the trade.
"The 18 first-round draft picks Sam Presti got -- he somehow manages to get a lot of those on top of talent -- is going to help their future," Brown joked, exaggerating the two first-round and one second-round picks the Thunder acquired as part of the deal.
Metta World Peace, who received a seven-game suspension for his elbow to Harden's head late last season, skirted questions about Harden and the Thunder.
"There’s so many other teams out there, man," World Peace said, before pointing out that he felt that L.A. should have held a 3-1 series lead against OKC.
When pressed about Harden, World Peace replied: "He left? I don’t even really know what happened. Whatever."
Gasol had nice things to say about Harden, calling him a player who "makes a big difference," but did not go overboard in his praise, perhaps remembering that Harden played a mere one minute in the USA-Spain gold medal game this summer at the London Olympics.
"I don’t know if you can say superstar kind of player, but definitely All-Star potential and a player that’s going to put up great numbers," Gasol said.
Steve Nash, whose season with the Phoenix Suns was over last spring when the Lakers and Thunder were battling in the playoffs, focused on the circumstances of the trade rather than how it swings the competitive balance of the West.
"They realized they weren't going to keep him and they were able to get pieces for him," Nash said of the Thunder. "That's the nature of the business when you have that many max guys on your team."
Lakers assistant coach Darvin Ham, whose job was certainly made harder last season by Harden's presence when helping to formulate a game plan to stop Oklahoma City, was not relieved by the trade. Rather, he lamented the state of today's NBA that led to a competitor to make a deal like that.
"Just looking at it from afar, I think it's a direct reflection of what was put together in that new collective bargaining agreement," Ham said. "Now, it kind of sucks for the fans in my opinion because you get used to seeing a core of guys together and now because of financial restraints ... It's totally a business decision. Totally a business decision."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.