Jun 2, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden celebrates a three point basket in the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs in game four of the Western Conference finals of the 2012 NBA playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE
Following the stunning — stunning is the apt word in this context — trade that sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Kevin Martin’s expiring contract, rookie Jeremy Lamb and future draft picks that could potentially turn into assets down the road, the Western Conference hierarchy has changed a bit.
But what does the trade mean for the league and the Spurs, who were eliminated by the Oklahoma City Thunder in last year’s Western Conference finals?
The Spurs’ odds of reaching the Finals should improve: Given Harden’s talent level, the Thunder’s second-ranked offense will likely take a slight dip in efficiency. Their bench unit, which heavily featured Harden’s shot creating, will not be as potent.
If you take into account Eric Maynor’s addition, who missed the entire postseason with a knee injury, the potential offensive emergence of Serge Ibaka and the contributions of Martin and Lamb, Oklahoma City is still capable of finishing among the elite offensive teams in the league. Having Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at their disposal could be enough to reach the Finals on their own.
This doesn’t mean the Spurs’ chances have dramatically improved as the Lakers are better equipped for the playoff format, which has confounded the Spurs’ rotation players in two consecutive seasons. The Thunder, however, shouldn’t be discounted as title contenders.
But the Spurs’ odds are better than they were yesterday. You have to start somewhere.
The Thunder have improved long-term: Lamb, 20, is the immediate bright spot of the deal as it frees him from the muddled guard rotation in Houston. It’s premature to expect anything from him this season but the lanky scoring guard will be able to fill in the gaps if need be without compromising his development. Another benefit of the trade is that it allows Oklahoma City to re-sign Maynor, who is a nice backup point guard to complement Westbrook.
The Thunder also acquired two future protected first-round picks which can be of real value in the hands of an astute organization.
Oklahoma City can still make additional moves: Primarly because of Martin’s massive $12.4 million contract. This is mere heresay but the Thunder could make potential trade partners with the Jazz. A package surrounding Martin and Al Jefferson, who has a $15 million expiring deal himself, would give the Thunder an effective interior option without leveraging their future. Utah would benefit from Martin’s perimeter scoring and be able to allocate more minutes to bright spots Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors.
Is Houston a contender? They were apart of this deal too, apparently.
Harden and Jeremy Lin, both of whom excel in the pick-and-roll, are one of the most compelling backcourts in the league. But without a big that can take advantage of their gifts — their most likely pick-and-roll partners are rookies Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas — the Rockets offense isn’t a guarantee to be truly elite. They have a lot of nice pieces, and one potential franchise centerpiece in Harden, but nothing to suggest title contention. A playoff berth, though, is more likely given the health concerns surrounding Dallas and Minnesota.