The Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden, Dequan Cook, Cole Aldrich and Lazar Hayward to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, a couple of 1st round draft picks (Houston's and the Raptors') and a second rounder. While it is too soon to draw any definitive conclusions, it sure looks like this is a good trade for all parties. Harden wanted a max deal and OKC wasn't ready to offer that after re-signing Westbrook and Ibaka; the tax bill was just too steep. As for the Rockets, they finally get their star (after missing out on every single free agent they pursued) and still have the assets to pursue another trade.
But who cares about those teams? We are all here because we want to know how it affects the San Antonio Spurs. As I see it, this works out pretty great for the silver and black.
First, let's make it clear that unless the Rockets make another trade, they are not a threat. Anyone who watched Kevin Martin play last season will tell you this is an upgrade for them, but they still have some questions to answer. Questions like is Jeremy Lin really a great point guard or merely someone who was in the right place at the right time? Can Omer Asik give them 15 and 9 playing heavy minutes? Are Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones starter-caliber players? Until they figure those things out, the Rockets won't bother the Spurs too much. Sure they will be as annoying as they have been for the last few years, but the Spurs should prevail, even in a hypothetical first round series.
It is OKC's side of the deal which is the far more interesting one. On paper, they traded a career 17.1 points per game scorer for one that averages 18.4, which does not seem like such a big deal. When you dig a little deeper though, it is clear that the Thunder downgraded big time. Martin struggled drawing fouls last season, after being a machine at getting to the line in the past. Part of it can be attributed to the NBA rule changes that are only getting more severe. The way refs stop falling for the rip-through last season, combined with this season's focus on shooters kicking their legs out, could hurt Martin even more. He will still get points because that is what he does, but without those 7+ trips to the line he was penciled in for nightly, Martin's efficiency could drop. There's also a question of how happily he would theoretically accept a bench role after the issues he had adapting to the Tyreke Evans-centric Kings offense, but I'm not too worried about that; winning cures all, as I'm sure you've heard.
What Martin will not be able to provide is the playmaking Harden contributed. OKC has an elite scoring point guard in Russell Westbrook and the best scorer in the league in Kevin Durant. While Harden's scoring was certainly welcomed, his biggest contributions were made when running OKC's second unit. Contributions that Martin and his career 11.2 assist percentage simply cannot match. Sure, Eric Maynor is back and Reggie Jackson could improve, but those guys are not in the same level as Harden. Nick Collison, for example, had great chemistry with The Beard. Can the young PGs replicate that? Forgive me if I say you can color me skeptical.
More importantly though, this hurts OKC on defense. Harden was not exactly a stopper supreme (there is a reason Scott Brooks started Sefolosha), but he was a solid defender that also demanded attention on the other side of the court. Now OKC can go with a defensive SG in Sefolosha or an offensive one in Martin, but their versatility is compromised. In a hypothetical playoff matchup with this new roster, the Spurs would have the upper hand, since Martin cannot be counted on to stop Manu, but Manu should be able to slow down Martin. Without Harden's playmaking and versatility, the Thunder second unit does not look as special and the finishing lineup will include either a bad defensive player or a bad offensive one: a huge benefit to San Antonio.
Of all of Harden's talents that the Thunder will miss, maybe most important is his contributions late in games. Before last season, the most compelling story line about OKC was that they could score like nobody's business, until the game was close and the opposing defense was at its toughest. That is the main reason Westbrook was pummeled in the press after the Thunder's loss to Dallas in the 2011 Western Conference Finals. But towards the end of last year's regular season, Brooks began using Harden as the primary ball handler and creator at the end of tight games. In fact, as Sebastian Pruiti broke down so beautifully in this Grantland piece (which is really worth a read if you missed it last June), the play that killed the Spurs was one ...
... where Russell Westbrook sets a pin-down screen for Durant as James Harden handles the basketball. The scheme produced 10 points on just four possessions, and each time they ran it, the Thunder went to a different option and a different player scored.
Honestly, this is the play that every Spurs fan was probably seeing in their nightmares during those June nights just after OKC eliminated San Antonio. The Thunder had an answer for every single permutation the defense threw at them, and there were no other better defenders on the bench that Pop could summon to put a stop to it. Overplay the pick and Westbrook would leak out. Switch and Durant had a mismatch. Double and a three-point shooter was left open. Shade Harden to make the pass difficult and he would burn you. That play utilized the strengths and abilities of all three of their best players and would have been tough even for 2003 Spurs defense to stop.
But as of today, the Spurs will never have to face Kevin, Russell and James like that again, and the players OKC gets in this deal do not have quite the skills of the 6th man who is leaving Oklahoma for Texas.
So overall, this seems to be good news for the Spurs. Sure, the Rockets will be tougher during those interdivision match ups, but one of the Spurs' biggest threats in the entire West, the Thunder, seems to have taken a step back. Until the season begins, it will be impossible to know for sure if our initial thoughts are right, but a lot would have to go their way for OKC to not miss Harden. Westbrook will have to show maturity (and the shot selection that comes with it) right away for OKC to feel comfortable trusting him in big moments, which means Kevin Durant will probably have to work a lot harder at the end of games. Martin will score but could prove to be too much of a defensive sieve to finish games for them, which would increase the pressure on the Thunder's two stars even more.
The final issue that this trade shines a light on is continuity, which could be the key factor that separates the three teams that seem to be at the top of everybody's preseason power rankings for the West: OKC, LA and SA. First, the Thunder: even if by some miracle Martin or Maynor exceed expectations, the new rotation that is formed will feature a core that does not know each other. It is easy to defer to your new teammate on a meaningless game in the middle of February, but in a playoff atmosphere, will Brooks and Co. have trouble keeping the team's playcalling cohesive? Just when it seemed the Thunder were done growing and evolving, this trade hits them like drawing that dreaded Chance card in Monopoly, "Go directly to jail. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200." When you think about it, this is the same problem the Lakers are facing. Mike Brown has two new players that will get heavy minutes and will need to familiarize themselves with a system and the hierarchy of the team. If they start the year running a Princeton-style offense, but then change it as Nash and Kobe get better acquainted, like many predict will happen, they could be still trying to get everyone on the same page even at the end of the season.
Which brings us to San Antonio: the only bonafide West contender that does not face these issues. The boring, old Spurs who did not make a blockbuster addition. For now, let's be cautiously optimistic and say the Spurs' chances of getting to the Conference Finals seem to have improved, and it did not take losing Stephen Jackson in a trade to do it. I call that a good day.