When the Oklahoma City Thunder shocked the world by trading James Harden just days before the season opener, many wondered whether the franchise was prioritizing the bottom line ahead of winning. On and off the court, Harden's been a critical factor in the Thunder's steady rise since 2010, and his do-it-all skill set was often the grease for the dual engines of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Kevin Martin may be a talented scorer, but he's not the same player, and a shorter financial commitment doesn't change that. Clearly, OKC couldn't be written off without Harden, but last season's Western Conference champions appeared poised for a slow start while adjusting to a new dynamic.
That lull lasted precisely three games.
After a 1-2 start, the 15-4 Thunder have lost just two games. They're riding a six-game winning streak, and have put up 100-plus in 10 consecutive contests. Fourth quarters still present times when the reigning sixth man of the year might come in handy, but overall, OKC has moved forward in strong fashion. A game in Oklahoma City always represents a tough challenge, and this one doesn't figure to buck any trends.
For more perspective on OKC, I conducted an IM conversation with Royce Young, who covers the team for the True Hoop network's Daily Thunder blog. Below is the transcript.
Andy Kamenetzky: On the surface, it appears the post-Harden era has commenced without a hitch. Has it been that smooth?
Royce Young: Honestly, it has. I recently looked over the schedule and the only game I thought the Thunder probably would've won with Harden around was the opener against the Spurs. They clearly hadn't adjusted to not having him -- that was only about four days after the trade -- and they didn't close well. Otherwise, by pretty much any metric, not only are the Thunder winning, they're winning better this season. Bigger margin of victory. Better offensive efficiency. Better assist rate. Better defensive efficiency. I guess that's not all that difficult when Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are still on your team.
AK: We've seen Harden serve as an important bridge between Durant and Westbrook in the fourth quarter. How do they operate down the stretch of close games without him?
RY: Basically it's all Westbrook and Durant, all the time. Like you said, Harden was an extremely valuable late-game player. When "Bad Russell" was in the building and playing wild and reckless, the Thunder could just take the ball away from him and let Harden run point and create. And don't get me wrong. There's still a very real fear about crunch-time situations in the postseason. Kevin Martin has fit in extremely well, except during late-game situations. Serge Ibaka is a bit more involved, but it's mostly all Durant and Westbrook. So far, it's worked pretty well. But that doesn't mean it's a lock to work smoothly in May.
This is off the wall, but I'd love to hear your thoughts. In OKC recently, there's been a discussion over who's better: Serge Ibaka or Pau Gasol. Who would you rather have?
AK: Ibaka. He's got two good knees (to the best of my knowledge) which makes him more immediately valuable than Pau. He's also nearly 10 years younger, a huge plus for the long term. And while Ibaka may not be as versatile, he seems like an incredibly hard worker intent on improving weaknesses. (Witness the improved jumper.) Plus, he and Howard would form an absolute wrecking-crew defensive frontcourt. Pau certainly has a better understanding of the game, and is light-years ahead at running an offense. But were Sam Presti to offer a straight swap, I'd say yes in a heartbeat.
You mentioned Martin's snug fit with the second unit, but how has Eric Maynor performed since returning from injury? I thought his absence flew under the radar last season.
RY: Yeah, there's no doubt that Maynor was sorely missed. People forget he was so solid two seasons ago that Scott Brooks benched Westbrook in Game 2 of the 2011 Western Finals and let Maynor play out the fourth. But overall, he's been pretty disappointing so far. He has the weight on his mind of being in a contract year while coming off a big knee injury. He's shown some flashes, but hasn't seemed able to get in a consistent rhythm with that second unit, which is troubling since many felt he'd assume that playmaking role off the bench vacated by Harden.
AK: Which I assume makes Martin, who's not a natural playmaker, less valuable in certain situations than Harden.
RY: Indeed. The Thunder's bench, which has been a real strength for OKC, has been a bit of a weakness. Adapting to the loss of Harden, the best point guard on the team, has been tough. At the same time, Martin is comfortable playing alongside Durant and Westbrook, so Brooks has changed his rotations a bit and demonstrated flexibility in subbing Westbrook and Durant. Most nights, Brooks doesn't leave Martin on the floor as the solo scorer very long, but tries to keep Durant or Westbrook with him.
To me, this game sets up perfectly for the classic angle of "The Lakers beat the Thunder in OKC and therefore are back on track." If the Lakers win, do you think they're "fixed," or at least trending toward that?
AK: "Fixed" feels premature, considering the laundry list of issues in need of tweaking. Even against a legit contender like OKC, one win doesn't equal "mission accomplished." And to some degree, there's a ceiling to what can be remedied without Steve Nash. (Even before Mike D'Antoni and his system were in the picture, Nash was imported to address problems still in existence.) Under the best of circumstances, much less under brutal ones, I felt the jelling process would require some time.
However, a win over OKC could definitely signal a greater understanding of schemes on both sides of the ball, and a greater understanding of new teammates and a new coach. It could also signal a greater overall commitment, as the Lakers' energy and focus has been uneven all season. (Last season, too.) It's very difficult to beat the Thunder without a decent amount of cylinders firing, so optimism would be appropriate.
What matchup has you most intrigued?
RY: Probably Kendrick Perkins versus Dwight Howard. I realize Howard hasn't exactly been his usual dominant self while recovering from back surgery, but Perk is getting paid for specific reasons and defending Howard is one of the biggest. He's gained a reputation for being a bit of a "Dwight stopper," and while most of that happened long ago, it's still probably the most important single matchup from OKC's perspective.
AK: Metta World Peace versus Durant. When the two first matched up, it was distinctly "advantage: then-Ron Artest." MWP's combination of smarts, quick feet and vise-grip hands made life miserable for the Durantula. Over the past couple of seasons, however, the tables shifted distinctly in Durant's favor, and in particular, the way Durant was run off screens became problematic. This season, however, Metta's in phenomenal shape and playing with tremendous energy, which may help in shadowing Durant. He's also more involved in the offense, which could create a more taxing assignment for KD.
And finally, your prediction!
RY: The Thunder are rolling along right now, having scored 100-plus in 10 straight. I'm not sure that they've ever clicked this well on the offensive end. But like I said, it just feels like the Lakers will win. That said, I'm going to go with OKC just for the fact that they should win.
AK: Well, just because you need a win doesn't mean you always get one, and I imagine that'll be the case with the Lakers. OKC is playing at a high level, and the Lakers aren't there yet (Wednesday's convincing win over the Pelicans acknowledged). However, I do think the Lakers will play well, win or lose.