In a good a way. Like really good way.
Though much was made of how detrimental Harden's departure would be to the Thunder's overall development and ultimate quest for a title, his absence has actually changed Oklahoma City for the better.
It's easy to look at the combo guard's fifth-leading 25.1 points and 5.2 assists per game and conclude that he would only make the Thunder more dangerous. It's even easier to assume that his 21.48 PER would only render Oklahoma City a more lethal opponent than they are now.
That said, all this proves is it's easy to overlook the facts, to bypass reality in favor of premature recognition. Because the reality is the Thunder are a more menacing team without Harden.
No, I'm not merely referring to Oklahoma City's current 20-4 record. It's one game better than the team began the season last year, but it's not nearly enough to justify how sweet life after Harden has been, how baleful a faction the Thunder are now.
I'll be one of the first to admit that Harden's beard made Kevin Durant and company look good. His 16.8 points and 3.7 assists per contest on 49.1 percent shooting from the floor last season allowed the Thunder to post 109.8 points per 100 possessions, giving them the second-most potent offensive attack in the NBA.
Impressed? You should be.
But you should be even more impressed that the Thunder are second to none this season. They're scoring at a rate of 114.1 points per 100 possessions, the best in the league and 4.3 points better than what they put up with Harden.
And it doesn't stop there.
Last season, Oklahoma City had an effective field-goal percentage of 51.6. Without Harden, it has risen to 53.6. The Thunder's margin of victory also stood at 6.1 last season. This year, with Harden in Houston, it sits at a league-leading 9.5.
Still not a believer? Good, I wouldn't expect you to be.
So what if the Thunder's offense is more efficacious without Harden? Winning championships on offense alone is impossible and the fact remains that Kevin Martin has hurt this team defensively, that Oklahoma City isn't as strong defensively without Harden.
Except that couldn't be further from the truth.
Oklahoma City allowed 96.9 points per game last year, yet it's allowing just 96.3 this season. Meaning? At the very least the Thunder's defense is just as good without Harden as it was with him.
Now, after taking all this in, some will be inclined to deem it a coincidence. Others, like myself, however, would be compelled to ask: Why?
Why are the Thunder statistically better off without Harden? Why are they scoring more points, shooting a better percentage from the field, winning by more and simply winning more? How is that possible?
Somewhat ironically, the slew of questions that are posed as a result of Oklahoma City's profound success can all be answered with additional query: Why has Harden blossomed with the Rockets?
Like it or not, Harden had the same effect on Durant, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook that they had on him.
While with the Thunder, Harden's potential was stifled by the presence of too many other robust talents. He didn't handle the ball nearly as much alongside Westbrook. He wasn't given the unconditional green light alongside Durant that he is given now. And not nearly as many shots were at his disposal playing alongside three other stars.
Thus, in Houston, Harden has increased his production and his overall value. Not just because he could, but because he also had to.
And it's a concept that, as Bill Reiter of FoxSports.com admits, works both ways:
This is the new-look Thunder: Westbrook and Durant learning to close out games, Martin lifting his team when those other two cant, Ibaka continuing to round into a star and the cast of role players general manager Sam Presti has built around them each understanding and executing their specific roles.
Down Harden, Westbrook has been forced to become more of a playmaker, to become more responsible with the ball in his hands.
No longer is there another top-tier facilitator in his midst. No longer does he have the freedom to shoot without reason.
Westbrook has also been forced to up the ante on defense. Martin isn't the stout defender Harden is and the point guard has had to commit himself more on that end of the floor as well.
And the results have been staggering.
Not only is Westbrook averaging a career-best two steals per game, but the Thunder went from allowing fewer points with him off the floor last season to allowing more than four less with him on the floor.
Just in case you're wondering, Oklahoma City has only ever allowed fewer points with Westbrook on the floor once, during the 2008-09 campaign. He was a rookie and the Thunder won just 23 games that year.
We are bearing witness to a completely reformed Russell Westbrook. One who is attempting less shots than last season, but who is dishing out a career-high 8.8 assists. One whose turnover percentage (13.5) has never been lower despite assisting on a career-high and fourth-best 43.1 percent of buckets while he's on the floor.
One who is currently the only NBA player averaging in the top 10 of points, assists and steals per game.
Should we believe that this is an accident? Only if we like making mistakes.
A similar case can be made for Durant, who is also having a career year without Harden as well.
Yes, he's averaged more than 27.1 points per game before. But he's dishing out 4.2 assists, grabbing 8.3 rebounds, forcing 1.5 steals and swatting away 1.4 shots per game while shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from deep—all career highs.
Durant has also tied a career-best by converting on 90 percent of free throws, which has left him on a quest to shoot 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three and 90 percent from the charity stripe in the same season.
His improved defensive performance has also helped the Thunder relinquish fewer points with him on the floor, marking the first time the opposition has scored more with him off the floor since the 2009-10 crusade.
Do we chalk his performance up to accidental success as well? Or how about Ibaka's?
Harden's absence has only accentuated his two-way prowess. He's still doing what he's always done on defense—sending back three shots per game while helping hold opponents to nearly four fewer points with him on the court—but he's exploded on the offensive end.
Ibaka has never attempted more shots per contest (10.7) yet his 58.4 field-goal percentage is a career-best and has, in turn, allowed him to score a career-high 16.2 points per game. The extra minutes he is receiving have also allowed him to increase his rebounds to eight a night, another career high.
Is his elevated prosperity inadvertent too?
Absolutely not, nor is Durant's and Westbrook's.
Even if we believed in happenstances lasting more than a quarter of the season, can we honestly believe they occur with so much substance.
Again, no. Because they don't.
And if you're still weary about how Martin has replaced the bearded wonder, let it be known that he's averaging 19.5 points per 36 minutes on 47.3 percent shooting to go along with a 47.4 percent clip from three-point range. That's right in line with, and in some cases better than, the 19.3, 49.1 and 39 Harden averaged last season, respectively.
So yeah, this is a Thunder team thriving in Harden's absence. The core of their convocation has had to step up in his stead and are thus playing with an expanded sense of purpose, exuding a starker sense of dedication and zealousness.
And don't just take the stat lines word for it either. Instead, use them as a vessel, a legend when watching Oklahoma City wage battle against any team.
As you watch, you'll notice a more self-aware Westbrook, a relentlessly aggressive Durant, a more involved Ibaka and an incredibly efficient Martin, leaving you to draw the same conclusion we have arrived at here.
It's the same conclusion that acknowledges that Oklahoma City was great with Harden.
But it's also the same one that affirms the Thunder are definitively much better off without him.
All stats in this article are accurate as of December 19, 2012.
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