Back in 2005, Kevin Martin was a revelation. After a silent rookie season deep on Rick Adelman's bench, Martin got some minutes and even some starts for a Sacramento Kings team in flux. In those minutes, he showed a penchant for scoring -- he averaged 15 points per 36 minutes on really efficient shooting, which is a signal of a budding points producer. He became a full-time starter the next season and, sure enough, began a five-year string of scoring 20 points per game on average. He was compensated handsomely, he was assured All-Star berths by his fans (myself included) and was foisted into the center core of entire offenses.
And he failed to deliver beyond what he delivered in that third year.
Don't get me wrong -- Martin remained and remains an elite scorer. Even at his worst (last season) he remained at average efficiency, which is sadly well above a good number of top scorers. But Martin never became an All-Star. (That ship has sailed, I'm afraid.) Offenses of which he was at the center have sometimes been good (Houston 2011) or average (Houston 2012) but more often ugly (Sacramento, Sacramento, Sacramento). He has gone from sweetheart of the stat mavens to another fake Morey gem. He's still valuable, and I think he lives up to his contract ($12 million). But there was supposed to be more. He was supposed to be one of the top shooting guards in the NBA for years, let alone a year. He never made it, and now he's a sixth man who people are somehow surprised is good at scoring.
James Harden was a revelation last season. Unlike Martin, Harden was a high draft pick. He disappointed over his first two seasons, offering not quite enough to turn heads. But in 2011-12, he got super efficient and averaged 16 points per game off of the bench ... and 19 per 36 minutes. Because of his name, the Thunder's quality and the high stock scouts have always had in him, he was basically guaranteed a max contract if he made it to restricted free agency. He didn't: OKC swapped him for Martin, prospects and picks. The hopes for Harden were higher than they'd been for Martin because one was a Pac-10 stud and a recruited L.A. player and the other was a quiet, unknown prospect from Zanesville, Ohio, who ended up doing time in the Southern Conference. But the hopes are similar: that Harden will be one of the top shooting guards in the NBA for years. All-Star teams. Playoff wins.
It didn't work out for Martin. How can Harden be different? He's already halfway there: he has legit NBA skills outside of scoring. (Scoring itself is made up of discreet skills, like drawing fouls and shooting. We're talking scoring in the more macro sense.) Harden can create for teammates, and this is another piece of what has folks imbuing him with more hope than players like Martin. Harden averaged four assists per 36 minutes last season, while Martin was stuck well below three most of his career.
There's also the chance that Harden can do something that has totally eluded Martin throughout the years: defend. Harden wasn't exactly a plus defender in Oklahoma City. And he hasn't been one this season, as far as I've seen. But he has better physical attributes that lend themselves to defense than does Martin, and the heavy attention on Harden may force him to focus on his deficiencies. Martin always worked hard to improve on defense, but it just never happened. Perhaps part of the difference is that Martin played for an anemic franchise for so many years, while Harden has moved from a top-drawer franchise to another strong franchise. If Kevin Martin was an adequate defender from 2008 on, we would be talking about him in a much different way today.
I write all of this as a still-devoted Martin fan. I think he has gotten a bit of a bad rap in recent years, and I think he's a lot better than most people give him credit for. But there's no question that more was expected. A lot is expected of Harden, too, and here's to hoping he can achieve all of it.