- Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com
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James Harden and his beard will make their return to Oklahoma City on Wednesday, his only scheduled visit there with the Houston Rockets this season. The Oklahoma City Thunder's famous fans are expected to give him a rousing ovation and there may even be a few of those old tribute beards dotting the stands.
But while honoring the past, there should be something noted about the present: The kids are all right.
There was widespread belief the Thunder's controversial preseason Harden trade would deal a blow to their chances of returning to the Finals. The final answer on that will not be firm until later, of course. But by the numbers and within the locker room, it's hard to notice they have missed a beat even though they have a different look and a slightly different style of play in the early going this season. In fact, in several regards they are performing at a higher level than they did last season. After a sluggish 1-2 start, Oklahoma City has won 10 of 12 and is not showing it's missing its former Sixth Man of the Year.
The Thunder have the third-most effective offense in the league thus far, even with ESPN.com's John Hollinger tearing at the inefficiency in their starting lineup last week.
"After the trade, it was come in and do your job," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "We said, 'This is what we need from you guys,' and they've done that."
Last season with Harden, the Thunder averaged 107 points per 100 possessions, shot 47 percent overall and were second in the league in getting to the foul line at 26 times per game. Harden and his 16.8 scoring average, 49 percent shooting and 6 free throws per game were a big part of it.
A month after the trade, the Thunder are averaging 109 points per 100 possessions, shooting 48 percent overall and are second in the league in getting to the foul line at 28 times per game. Kevin Martin, Harden's replacement, and his 15.7 scoring average, 46 percent shooting and 5 free throws a game are a big part of it.
"Our chemistry is getting better each day," Thunder star Kevin Durant said. "Everybody knows [Martin] has averaged 20 points in this league. He came here and sacrificed minutes and shots. I'm happy he's on our team, he's helping us out a lot."
When you watch the Thunder right now it's true they do not look like a replica of the team that took out the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers and then stunningly beat the San Antonio Spurs four straight times in the playoffs.
Brooks' rotations are patchy and sometimes strained. He's riding Durant hard, playing him nearly 40 minutes a night, the highest of his career to this point. Saturday when the Thunder pulled out an overtime win over the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooks didn't take Durant out in the second half. He racked up nearly 50 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back.
Russell Westbrook, too, has seen his minutes increase a little this season. Brooks, who has the league's fourth-youngest team, has brushed off the minute concerns, referring to the youth on his roster. But it's quite clear he's relying a little heavier on his proven stars in the early stages of the season. Brooks hasn't trusted Martin to be on the floor alone to handle the scoring load as he often did with Harden last season.
There are times when it seems Brooks isn't alone on that belief; Durant and Westbrook occasionally seem to forget Martin is a dangerous option, too.
Backup point guard Eric Maynor, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, also has been shaky. After playing reasonably well in the preseason, Maynor has simply been poor in the early going, shooting only 31 percent, and Brooks has restricted his minutes. Brooks also hasn't shown much trust in young and unproven players Reggie Jackson or Perry Jones yet -- players who have shown positive flashes -- leaving the Thunder bench looking a little sparse at times when compared to last season.
Jeremy Lamb, the rookie lottery pick who was part of the Harden trade, hasn't yet proved he's ready to contribute either.
Focus on all of that and you can see where Harden is missed. But the Thunder aren't just overcoming these issues in their transition period after the trade. They are thriving.
"We know there's room to get better," Martin said. "We're still in the feel-out process and that's something that will improve as the year goes on. Talent-wise, we know what we're capable of."
Durant is showing signs that he might be at the start of the best season of his career. Even with his minutes up, Durant is shooting less and scoring less. Instead he's passing more, rebounding more, doing everything more as he's averaging career highs in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. So is Westbrook, who is averaging two fewer shots and three more assists per game than he did last season. He's currently at 8.6 assists a night, which would be a career high.
Last season the Thunder were last in the league in the percentage of their baskets that were assisted, with Harden often dominating the ball when Westbrook wasn't. They have zoomed to seventh in that category this season. That's also how Serge Ibaka, who has developed his offensive game over the last few years, is averaging almost six more points a game while shooting 57 percent.
Durant and Westbrook are throwing him the ball more. They're throwing everyone the ball more.
"Chemistry is a big part of this league and we had that with James. We'd been together since we were young pups," Durant said. "After the trade we had to take a look at our games. We had to move the ball more. We had to up our assists. The chemistry part is different and it is still growing, but overall I like the direction we're headed."
Martin doesn't have the history with the Thunder that Harden did. But he already has developed good relationships with Durant and Kendrick Perkins. The team believes more time will lead to more trust, the sort that is needed in tough, playoff-type environments. As the season goes along the Thunder may be able to add to their bench via trade or free agency as they did last season when they signed Derek Fisher in March.
Before all that plays out, though, they are showing plenty of signs that the trade has not weakened them meaningfully. With the way Durant is performing and Westbrook is sharing the ball, there's a chance it could end up making them a more dynamic team.
"We're finding ways to win right now but we're also finding ways to get better," Brooks said. "We're going along with our business like we're supposed to."
1dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann