Harden is a very good player, and most teams would take a significant dip after losing such a player even if they got back a player as good as Kevin Martin.
So what is it about this Thunder team that has made it able to sustain its old winning ways without such an integral piece?
The answer is all about a talented young team that is doing exactly what we all thought they would do: improving with every game and experience that they get under their metaphorical belt.
(All stats in this article are accurate as of Dec. 5, 2012.)
The Offensive Development of Serge Ibaka
When looking at how this team is playing so well despite cutting loose a star player right before the start of the season, it is imperative that we take a look at just how much better Serge Ibaka has been offensively.
Harden averaged 17 points per game last season, so it was expected that Ibaka would have to up his offensive output if the Thunder were going to remain an elite unit. How well he has done that is something that was not expected.
Even when you take a superficial look at Ibaka’s statistical production, the improvement he has made this season is pretty impressive.
His field-goal percentage has risen from 53.5 percent to 59.5 percent, his free-throw percentage has risen from 66.1 percent to 87 percent and (naturally) his points per game have risen from 9.1 to 14.5.
The departure of James Harden appears to have benefited Ibaka, who is getting almost three more shot attempts per game. However, the biggest reason Ibaka has been able to increase his scoring so much is his outside shot.
When it comes to shots outside the paint but inside the three-point line, Ibaka has shot 54 percent on the season. It is clear he has worked on that shot in the offseason, and he is making the most of his ability to hit it by shooting nearly half of his shots from that area.
The pick-and-roll has helped Ibaka in getting those shots, as teams are so focused on stopping Russell Westbrook from getting to the hoop that they cannot prevent Ibaka from getting that open look or getting point-blank attempts at the rim.
That pick-and-pop option is one that the Thunder did not have last season, and it has made their offense all the more potent despite the absence of James Harden.
Obviously, losing a player as offensively-gifted as James Harden is something that will surely negatively impact a team’s offense.
Another reason that the Thunder’s offense has remained one of the league’s best (and perhaps even gotten a little better) is because of the team’s increased ability to hit shots from three-point range.
The addition of Kevin Martin in the Harden trade has been a big part of that improvement, as the former Houston Rocket is shooting 47.7 percent from three, a career high.
However, that is not lone reason for this improvement, as he is not the only player on this team who is sniping opponents from long range.
Kevin Durant and Thabo Sefolosha join him as players currently hitting more than 45 percent of their three-point attempts, and that group plus Russell Westbrook makes four Thunder players that are setting a career-high three-point percentage.
|Player||3-Point Percentage for 2012-13|
Former Career-High (Season)
|Kevin Durant||45.5||42.2 (2008-09)|
|Thabo Sefolosha||46.3||43.7 (2011-12)|
|Kevin Martin||47.7||41.5 (2008-09)|
|Russell Westbrook||33.8||33 (2010-11)|
The Thunder are beginning to develop a model that has been proven to work. As the Basketball Analytics blog explains here, that model consists of having a couple of playmakers who make the offense go and surrounding them with three-point marksmen to spread the floor.
Oklahoma City has the three-point specialists in Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Martin, and the playmakers in Durant and Westbrook.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook
Speaking of those two, let’s be absolutely honest about something. Even though much of the NBA community was bemoaning the trade of James Harden, we all knew this team would be fine for two reasons: Durant and Westbrook.
Thunder GM Sam Presti has done an amazing job of assembling this team, but no one could have guessed that he would draft two superstars in these two that would become the foundation of a championship contender.
The development of these two is what will determine the future of this franchise.
Even though Harden was an important player for this team, he was never close to an equal of either of these two. Anyone who tells you differently is wrong.
Westbrook’s development this season has been extremely important. Without Harden around to share the ball-handling duties, he [Westbrook] has grown already as a point guard. His assist-to-turnover ratio is at a career high at 2.46.
His improved passing and continued ability to score at a high level has made few wish to have Harden instead.
Then there is his running mate, whose play over the past few seasons has secured his position in the “best player in the world” conversation for probably the next decade.
It is tough to see just how much Durant continues to improve unless you really pay attention.
After a somewhat slow scoring start to the season, Durant has gone back to his old offensive ways, rising to No. 2 on the points per game list behind Kobe Bryant for 2012-13 season.
What makes Durant’s average of 26.5 points per game so impressive is how efficiently he scores those points.
Of the top seven scorers currently in the league, Durant shoots the fewest shots at 16.6 per game, has the second-highest field-goal percentage at 51.4 and has the highest three-point percentage at 45.5.
When you add that he is shooting 90.3 percent from the free-throw line and is averaging career highs in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, it is easy to see why so many believe Durant will be an absolute monster when he finally reaches his prime in a few years.
In the advanced stats from ESPN’s John Hollinger, Durant leads the league in wins added to his team with 6.5, which is one full win more than any other NBA player.
And for those of you who continue to unfairly criticize Durant for not being aggressive enough, I give you this quote courtesy of Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:
Kevin Durant: "I want to be a go-to guy in the fourth. That's what I live for."— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) December 5, 2012
There is nothing more you can ask from a guy as far as mentality goes.
This elite play from Durant and the continued improvement of his partner in crime, Westbrook, is just another reason why the departure of James Harden had no chance of crippling this team like many thought it did.
In fact, this team may be better without Harden than it was with him. Not because Harden was holding them back, but because they are a young team whose young parts continue to improve despite all the obstacles in front of them.
There is still a long road ahead of this young team. However, if it continues to improve and grow at its current rate, there will be nothing stopping it from dominating the NBA very soon.
Not even losing a part that seemed as essential as James Harden once did.