The Oklahoma City Thunder have been just fine since trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets prior to the NBA season. However, despite their continued success, the Harden trade will go down as one of the worst of the decade.
At 42-15, two games behind the San Antonio Spurs for second spot in the Western Conference, the Thunder are sitting pretty, and should easily contend for a Finals berth. When Oklahoma City raced away to a 20-4 start to the season, many critics were claiming the team was better off without Harden. That same sentiment is going to look ridiculous in two seasons, if not next year.
Thunder fans can truthfully say their team has improved. The team is scoring better (106.8 ppg compared to 103.1 in 2011-12), shooting better (48.4 percent as opposed to 47.1 percent), while assists have risen considerably (22.1 compared to 18.5), and even free throw attempts have remained relatively unchanged.
Take all that with a grain of salt – the lack of preparation caused by last year’s lockout saw teams and players decline in just about every statistical category across the board due to the season’s uncertain start date.
Some may even attribute the rise of Russell Westbrook to Harden’s absence. Yet, however entertaining Westbrook may be, he’s still an incredibly flawed basketball player.
Houston took a risk in trading for Harden. It was entirely plausible his stellar bench play was the result of the attention Kevin Durant and Westbrook demanded.
However, the big but here is Harden’s playoff success. It wasn’t Westbrook striking fear into the hearts’ of the Dallas Maverick defenders during the 2011 Western Conference Finals – Westbrook’s weak shot selection and inconsistent jumper kept the Mavs in a number of games at times – it was the threat of Harden. His ability to snipe from outside, his deadly dribble penetration, and his court vision simply make him the better player.
Sure, Harden his faults; his defense has dropped off a notch this season, and his play in the 2012 Finals was slightly sickening, but Harden is destined to become a top-five player- he’s that good.
So as Houston’s young core continues to develop, it seems completely likely they eventually surpass the Thunder as the top team in West, while Oklahoma City will be left ruing their decision to keep Westbrook over Harden as he plays them out of a playoff series or two.
Follow Robert White on Twitter @RobertWhitebrrr.