2012 NBA Playoffs: The Oklahoma City Thunder's Most Important Player

Alex Petroski@@Al_Ski21Contributor IIMay 10, 2012

The Oklahoma City Thunder are run by an evil genius.  Okay, maybe not evil, but Sam Presti is definitely a genius. 

Yes, it helps that he has the best scorer in the NBA in Kevin Durant and that he fell into Presti's lap with the second pick in the draft. 

Yes, it helps that he has a second All-Star/future Olympian/all-world athlete on his roster in Russell Westbrook who came off the board after O.J. Mayo and Michael Beasley in the 2008 NBA Draft. 

Sam Presti is a genius for two moves which turned the Thunder into a perennial contender until the day that Kevin Durant retires.  The final piece to his team's puzzle was a physical, defensive anchor at center who could slide Durant and Serge Ibaka into their more natural positions. 

Before Kendrick Perkins, Ibaka was an undersized center. 

Now, he's a power forward who leads the league this season by over a block and a half per game. 

Since the Thunder acquired Perkins for Jeff Green at the trade deadline last season—including the playoffs—when Perkins plays, the Thunder are 72 and 31. 

The second move was drafting James Harden from Arizona State University with the third overall pick in the 2009 draft.  This is the one we're going to focus on. 

In three seasons, Harden has turned himself into the Thunder's most important player. 

When Oklahoma City was on the clock back in 2009, there may have been better players on the board.  Even after Harden's rookie year, it appeared that Presti missed on the pick. 

After Harden, the Sacramento Kings took guard Tyreke Evans from Memphis.  With the seventh pick, the Golden State Warriors took Davidson phenom Stephen Curry.  Both players had better rookie years than Harden by a significant margin.  

Evans took home the rookie of the year award scoring 20 points per game on 46 percent shooting for a bad Kings team.  Curry averaged 17.5 points and six assists per game for a slightly better Warriors team. 

Harden shot just 40 percent and scored 9.9 points per game for a Thunder team that made the playoffs and gave the eventual champion Lakers a healthy scare.

Since that season,  Harden has improved while the other two have declined in production when they have managed to stay on the court. 

Beyond his numbers, the selection of Harden has made Presti look like a genius because of the way that Harden fits into the puzzle. 

Harden has come off the bench for the majority of his career and has done so willingly.  He has accepted his role in a way that makes the Thunder the most soundly built team in the NBA. 

Oklahoma City has two primary scorers.  Presti realized what the team needed was a supplementary player, and what he got was the best bench player in the NBA other than Manu Ginobili.  What he got was a Manu clone, right down to the sweet lefty stroke.

In reality, Harden is overqualified to play the role that he does for the Thunder, but his willingness to do so is what makes him special. 

Harden was 30th in the league in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) this season (21.13).  Of the 16 playoff teams, Harden would have had the highest PER for four (Boston, Indiana, Philadelphia, Memphis).

For players who were third on their team in PER, Harden was behind only Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs for highest in the league.

Harden had the fourth highest PER of any shooting guard in the league, behind only Dwyane Wade, Ginobili and Kobe Bryant

James Harden played in 62 of the 66 games for the Thunder this season.  In the 19 games that Harden lead the team in scoring, or had the second most points Oklahoma City, went 16 and three (84 percent winning percentage).  In the other 43 games they went 28 and 15 (65 percent winning percentage). 

In other words, Harden's value to this team is in his ability to allow Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to do other things besides score the ball. 

Based on those numbers, when the scoring burden is not completely on Durant and Westbrook, Oklahoma City is a better team.  When they don't have to score every time down the floor, Durant and Westbrook thrive because of how complete their games are.  They both contribute defensively, on the glass and are capable passers.

Despite this glowing assessment of Harden's game, he still has room to improve.  Harden's clutch statistics, which are defined by 82games.com as the last five minutes of a game in which neither team is leading by more then five points, were less then stellar

However, we saw a flash of improvement in this category in Game 4 of the Thunder's first-round series with the defending champion Dallas Mavericks.  With a 3-0 lead in the series, the Thunder trailed Dallas by 13 points going to the fourth quarter.  That's when Harden took over.

Of the 35 points Oklahoma City scored in the fourth quarter, Harden scored or assisted on 24 of the points and nine of the 12 field goals.  He essentially played point guard down the stretch and was allowed to break down the defense against the aging Jason Kidd with Durant and Westbrook on opposite wings. 

This look was nearly unstoppable and could be the factor that pushes Oklahoma City over the top in their quest for a championship. 

If Harden can become a consistently dynamic player late in games, that would give the Thunder a three-headed monster like no other team in the league and would fix their biggest problem: stagnant, predictable offense late in games. 

Sam Presti has built a perfect roster thanks in large part to the sacrifices of James Harden. 

It will be interesting to see if Presti will sign on the dotted line when the time comes to pay Harden what he's worth after next season.  It will be more interesting to see if there's a ring on the hand signing on that dotted line.


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