James Harden's Departure Leaves OKC Thunder One-Dimensional Down Stretch

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterNovember 2, 2012

It's early, but the returns aren't pretty for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the post-James Harden era.

The defending Western Conference champions shot 37.7 percent from the floor. They turned the ball over 18 times. They endured long stretches in which they struggled to put the ball in the basket.

And, in the end, they lost to a San Antonio Spurs squad that was without its own former Sixth Man of the Year in Manu Ginobili.

Kevin Martin deserves some credit for stepping into Harden's role off the bench and coming through with 15 points and five assists, including a 25-foot three-pointer to tie the score at 80-80 late in the fourth quarter.

Not quite the 37-point, 12-assist, six-rebound, four-steal masterpiece that Harden painted in his debut with the Houston Rockets. Then again, Harden himself wouldn't likely have posted such eye-popping numbers had he come off the bench for OKC in this one.

Nonetheless, this result—an 86-84 loss to a top-tier team on the road—was less about the new faces and more about OKC's old skeletons creaking out of the closet again. The Thunder's offense was all too painful to watch at times even with Harden on board, and was similarly unimpressive in Game 1 sans Harden, particularly down the stretch.

In short, a bundle of bumbling iso's, overdone dribbles and opportunities left floating along the River Walk. 

Kevin Durant led all scorers with 23 points and became the second-youngest to crack the 10,000-point club, but was nowhere to be found in crunch time. His last bucket came at the 6:41 mark, his last look a 27-footer that went for naught with 2:24 left in the game.

Might Harden have found him for a few more quick baskets in the clutch? We'll never know.

You can be sure, though, that there will be plenty of folks piling onto Russell Westbrook for attempting to take over. On the one hand, he scored the last four points for the Thunder to give them an 84-81 lead with nearly a minute-and-a-half left in the game.

On the other hand, he lost track of Tony Parker defensively not once, but twice in the final 30 seconds; missed 15 of his 21 shots, including a clanked three-pointer with 1:40 left and a unsuccessful layup with under a minute on the clock; and turned the ball over six times, the most glaring of which was stolen by Kawhi Leonard on what was supposed to be the final possession of regulation for OKC.

Would Westbrook have tried to do everything (and wound up accomplishing very little) down the stretch if Harden had been there? We'll never know that, either.

But that's the reality for the Thunder now. Without Harden, OKC must rely even more heavily on its two All-Stars to handle the ball, score for themselves and create for everyone else. Kevin Martin will put up points, but can't be counted on to serve as any sort of fulcrum for the offense when the game's on the line.

Nor does he demand the sort of defensive attention that Harden does and did, the sort that led to easier opportunities for Durant and Westbrook once upon a few months ago.

Remember, too, that Harden killed the Spurs in crunch time during the Western Conference Finals. Without him, OKC might still be seeking its first NBA Finals appearance.

And might be hard-pressed to come through with a second in a row now that he's gone for good.

Don't get me wrong—the Thunder have the horses to contend in the West without Harden this season. Durant and Westbrook remain two of the top 10-12 players in the NBA, and should be able to shoulder enough of a load to ignite another deep playoff run.

But Harden is the caliber of player who'd have put OKC over the top. He's the lubricant that transformed a creaky, isolation-heavy offense into an elite scoring machine. And when all else failed, he could get to the rim and draw contact better than just about anyone else on the floor.

Durant and Westbrook included.

It won't be long before the old Westbrook-vs.-Harden debate gets up and running again, assuming it hasn't already. To recap, the Thunder inked Russ to a five-year extension last season, making him their "designated player" and ensuring that they'd only be able to max out James with a four-year offer this fall.

For all his faults, Westbrook has done plenty to merit that money. The bigger culprit in this debate is Serge Ibaka. After all, it was Ibaka who got paid this summer, to the tune of $48 million over four years, before negotiations between Thunder GM Sam Presti and Harden's camp picked up and eventually broke down. It was Ibaka's money that made the prospect of paying Harden the full $60 million max—rather than the $54 million or so that was reportedly offered—too much for OKC to stomach.

In essence, the Thunder picked Ibaka over Harden, a young, uber-athletic and improving big man over a reigning Sixth Man of the Year with All-Star (if not All-NBA) ability whose skills seemed redundant on that roster.

Their reward? Four points (on 2-of-7 shooting), nine rebounds, some shaky defense (despite two blocks) and a cameo on a Tim Duncan poster.

Oh, and a loss.

Would James Harden have made the difference for the Thunder Thursday night? Would they have kicked off their conference title defense with a victory instead of a defeat?

It's tough to say since, logically speaking, there's no way to know the counterfactual. As it is, the Thunder came agonizingly close without Harden, though let's not forget that Manu was in street clothes for this one.

Can they keep the Western Conference crown within reach absent their most famous Beard? Perhaps.

Would they have taken one step closer to lifting the Larry O'Brien Trophy this season had they not shipped him out? Again, we'll never know.