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Now that we've recovered from the shock of the James Harden trade, how will the Thunder and Rockets work in their new players?
By now, we've had enough time to get over the shock of James Harden being traded to the Houston Rockets. So many bigger-picture storylines have emerged, and they are certainly worth discussing. But when trades like these are made, we often lose sight of the bottom line: How it affects the teams on the court. That's where trades are won and lost, and that's where Scott Brooks and Kevin McHale must earn their paychecks.
Make no mistake: there will be changes to both teams' makeups. The Thunder must replace the league's best bench scorer and the ideal bridge between their two stars. In doing so, they must figure out a way to work in Kevin Martin without the luxury of a training camp to get him acclimated. The Rockets, meanwhile, must figure out how to facilitate Harden's development into being THE MAN without taking him away from his strengths.
These are tough issues with tough answers. Here's my sense on the kinds of things that both teams will be altering.
WHAT CHANGES WITH THE THUNDER'S SECOND UNIT?
In the short-term, a lot. Martin is a really good scorer that's one year removed from averaging nearly 24 points per game with a true-shooting percentage above 60, but he won't come close to replacing Harden's ability as a playmaker. Martin also gets his points in significantly different ways than Harden, which will change the makeup of the Thunder's second-unit offense.
The biggest reason the Thunder were able to thrive with Harden quarterbacking the second unit is because he's one of the league's best pick-and-roll players. He was ninth in scoring efficiency as a pick-and-roll ball-handler last season, according to MySynergySports.com, and he's also a brilliant passer that understands angles and can deliver pinpoint pocket passes to his big men. The pick-and-roll chemistry between Harden and Nick Collison in particular was unmatched by any other tandem in the league. They could execute the play from either side, from the top of the floor and using dribble handoffs. That single action carried the Thunder's offense for possessions at a time in the second and fourth quarters. Now, it's gone, and there's no way for Martin to replicate it.
At the same time, there are new avenues that open up with Martin. In many ways, Martin is actually a better scorer than Harden. Last year was a down year for him, and yet, he still finished in the top 115 in scoring efficiency in four critical offensive categories on MySynergySports.com: scoring as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (ninth), isolation (18th), spot-up situations (75th) and coming off screens (111th). He's especially lethal in the triple threat with a live dribble on either wing, where he can use his quick first step to get by defenders and draw contact. Martin's specialty is exploding just enough to get his shoulders in front of the defender, stopping to allow the defender to catch up and absorbing the bump to draw the foul. He's also very good as a catch-and-shoot player, and he's obviously a very good shooter on stand-still three-pointers. Brooks may have to employ more baseline screens with Martin than he ever did with Harden.
One potential problem: Martin's foul-drawing declined sharply last year. Two years ago, Martin averaged 8.4 free-throw attempts per game, one of the highest marks in the league. Last year, while playing just one fewer minute, his attempts fell to 4.5 per game. There are all sorts of theories for why this happened, but it remains a mystery. Some of it could be explained by Martin's changing role in Kevin McHale's offense, which tended to have the ball in the point guard's hands more than the offense of his predecessor, Rick Adelman. Some of it could be the NBA's emphasis on not awarding fouls on the "rip move," a Martin specialty. No matter the cause, Martin's value declines if he's not drawing fouls. The Thunder have to hope that drop was a one-year blip, because one of Harden's best qualities was to get to the free-throw line.
The more fundamental issue is that Martin is nowhere close to being the playmaker that Harden is. Harden's assist percentage (the percentage of possessions that end with a Harden assist when Harden's in the game) was 19.3 last year, an incredibly high number for a shooting guard. Martin's was 14.5 percent, which is decent, but not Harden-good.
But the Thunder could mitigate that problem if Eric Maynor can return healthy. Maynor tore his ACL early last season, and without him, Harden assumed far more of the playmaking. But now, Maynor is back and ready to continue his rise as one of the league's best back-up point guards. Maynor is well-suited to delivering Martin the ball in his ideal spots, and when things break down, he is better at making a play than anyone the Thunder suited up in his absence. Perhaps the Thunder can get by with a more egalitarian split of the playmaking between Maynor and Martin, rather than having Harden do it all.
Then again, just because two people can do one person's job doesn't make it ideal. When Brooks has to figure out a crunch-time lineup, he can't put Maynor and Martin on the floor together unless he really downsizes up front. That's where Harden's versatility will hurt the Thunder the most. No longer can they run their pet play that mystified the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. No longer can they put three elite playmakers on the floor at once. They now must make a trade-off between the playmaking of Maynor and the scoring of Martin, and that hurts them in the short term.
COULDN'T THEY JUST PLAY DURANT AND WESTBROOK MORE BY THEMSELVES?
That's one possible answer. In the past, he could afford to sit Westbrook and Durant for large stretches because Harden was able to carry the offense for the team's second unit. But given the tradeoff the Thunder must accept without Harden, their second unit may not be as powerful as it once was. Therefore, it's entirely possible that Westbrook and Durant will need to play more separately for the Thunder's rotations to work.
Realistically, though, that's a tough sell for both players. For one thing, it's hard to ask any starter to adjust to having his minutes staggered so heavily. If Brooks wanted to ensure that one of Westbrook and Durant were always on the floor, he could sub one out at the six-minute mark of the first quarter, then have him replace the other for the start of the second quarter. They could play the first six minutes of the first and third quarters, the last six minutes of the second quarter and the last eight minutes of the fourth quarter together, then play 16 minutes each by themselves. It works in theory. In practice, though, both players must adjust their on-court rhythm, and they'll get out of their comfort zone. There's a reason you don't see teams staggering their starters' minutes like this more often.
For another, that's going to be an especially tough sell for Durant and Westbrook. Consider the following stat from NBA.com's John Schuhmann.
Total minutes played last season with neither of the other 2 on the floor - Durant: 38, Westbrook: 13, Harden: 464.— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) October 28, 2012
Of the three Thunder perimeter stars, only Harden had extensive experience playing without other playmakers. If Brooks adjusts his lineups so that Westbrook and Durant play more often without each other, they will need to learn how to thrive in the same way Harden has over the past few years. Consider: despite playing so much with reserves, Harden had a higher adjusted plus-minus than Westbrook and Durant last year. That's not nearly as easy as it sounds, and it'll certainly take some time for Westbrook and Durant to adjust their games.
That's why I don't expect to see significant changes in Brooks' playing rotation right away. If he's smart, he slowly phases in lineups with just Westbrook or just Durant during the regular season, then unleashes it during the playoffs so they don't lose ground without one of their stars in.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE ROCKETS?
This trade isn't about the short term for them. They were desperately seeking a superstar, and while Harden isn't a superstar yet, he's the best under-25 shooting guard in the league and can very easily grow into one. The Rockets still have plenty of assets in the form of youngsters, draft picks and enough cap room next summer to afford another max-contract player.
But in the short term, it will be interesting to see how Harden and Jeremy Lin play together. Lin thrived when he was able to be the primary playmaker, but the Rockets would be foolish to simply relegate Harden to being a spot-up shooter. Part of his strength is his pick-and-roll play, and if Lin takes a backseat to help facilitate that, so be it. Harden's the future max-contract guy, not Lin.
To make it work, Lin is going to have to turn himself into a much better cutter. This was an underrated strength of Westbrook's, and an especially pivotal one because it helped the Thunder play Harden together with Westbrook and Durant while maximizing the talents of all three. Westbrook could cut from the baseline, or he could cut from the wing. Lin lacks Westbrook's explosiveness, so he may struggle to finish like Westbrook does at the rim, but he can absolutely put pressure on the defense by moving opportunistically into open space.
Look at how Westbrook cuts off the baseline in this Harden pick-and-roll against the Portland Trail Blazers in the regular season.
Those plays were common with the Thunder last year. Sometimes, Harden would find Westbrook along the baseline. Sometimes, Harden dished to the big man setting the screen (usually Collison) and they eventually found Westbrook cutting for a layup. Sometimes, Westbrook's cutting opened up a three-pointer for someone else on the weakside. Whatever it was, good things happened when Westbrook moved into open space instead of standing around. Lin needs to replicate Westbrook's kinetic energy to get the most out of his pairing with Harden.
The Thunder become much less dynamic with Harden, but they can mitigate some of his absence with a bounce-back season from Martin, further development from Maynor and different play-calling from Brooks. The Rockets become much more difficult to stop, but their prized free-agent point guard now needs to adjust his game to make things work.