The Oklahoma City Thunder had no problem scoring on the Houston Rockets on Sunday. In Game 1, the Thunder dropped 120 points on 103 possessions, for an offensive rating of 116, which frankly isn't that far off their season average. Oklahoma City was No. 1 in the league in offense this season, scoring 112.4 points per 100 possessions. That was actually the 48th best offensive season by a team ever.
But seeing James Harden on the court with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka -- even in a mediocre effort, with 20 points in 22 shooting possessions -- makes me wonder how much better Oklahoma City could have been.
The Thunder ended the season with 60 wins and the best margin of victory in the league. They are a rightfully popular NBA Finals pick, and in some cases (myself included) a title pick. Getting better than that is almost a waste. But while Kevin Martin had a fine season -- 14 points per game in less than 28 minutes with a better than .600 True Shooting -- and the trade will possibly look good down the road, we could have had one of the best teams ever if Harden had stayed.
In his breakout season a year ago, Harden had a True Shooting percentage of .660 while using 21 percent of the team's possessions. His usage rate went up to 29 percent in Houston, and his True Shooting percentage stayed excellent at .600. Imagine he stayed in Oklahoma City and boosted his usage rate only marginally, taking some possessions from Westbrook, the least efficient major cog on the Thunder. (Westbrook has a TS% of .532 this season.) I don't know exactly how you accomplish that, but imagine you find a way to get the ball out of Russell's hands and into Harden's five extra times per game. Since we're boosting Harden's usage rate midway between our two data points, we'll cut his efficiency by half the change we've seen -- so about .630 TS%. Just moving those five possessions from Westbrook to Harden gives OKC an extra point ... without adjusting Westbrook's efficiency upward, as tends to happen with a smaller offensive load.
Last year, Harden had 13 shooting possessions per game at .660 TS%. Martin is at 11.5 shooting possessions and a .608 TS%. Harden's advantage is worth another point. And this doesn't take into account how much better a passer Harden is compared to Martin. And now, by substituting Harden back in for Martin and boosting Harden's role at the expense of Westbrook, we've added two points per game to OKC's output. Adjusting for pace, we're at 115.4 points per 100 possessions, which would be tied as the No. 3 offense in NBA history. (The '87 Lakers and '92 Bulls beats it. The '88 Celtics are right there.)
This is all a meaningless exercise with scores of unintended consequences ignored. But if the Thunder didn't have to worry about the luxury tax, we could be watching a team with the potential to be the greatest offensive squad in history right now. It's hard to ignore.