The No. 3 pick of the 2010 draft did not come with a lot of flash or hype, bow-tie aside. He’s been steadily under the radar and perhaps even under appreciated by the league and his own fan base due to the stratospheric rise of Kevin Durant and even the marked improvement of Russell Westbrook.
But if we’ve learned anything in the past week and a half, it is this: The Thunder need James Harden.
Since Harden’s hurt hamstring has caused him to be out of the lineup, the Thunder has gone 3-3. At first glance, this doesn’t look all that bad. After all, .500 ball is not horrible in the NBA and you could argue that it’s such a small sample size that maybe there’s no real merit in their record.
And that would be a sound argument…until you look at their level of competition and their record before Harden went down.
The Thunder has faced the worst team in the league in the Nets, a team struggling to stay above .500 and keep the 8th seed in the East in Toronto, a team struggling to stay above .500 and keep the 7th seed in the East in Charlotte, a lottery bound Indiana team, and then the playoff bound Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs. Compared to the teams the Thunder played before this six game stretch and will have to player afterwards, this should have been the time that they piled up some wins even if half of them were on the road because they faced inferior competition. And they’ve only gone 3-3.
Now onto record, in the six games since Harden was lost to injury, the Thunder has lost three of them. Know how many games it took for the Thunder to lose three games before Harden got hurt?
Try 15. The team went 12-3, needing 15 games to rack up that third loss before Harden went down. And after that loss, they won three straight before losing Harden, going 18-3 since the last time they lost 3 of 4 all the way back to January 27th against the Chicago Bulls. Or in other words, this team was on a roll.
Because you can absolutely say that looking at only the last handful of games before a player went down is selective and ignores the season as a whole. But that in no way negates the reality that this team was trending in the right direction, competing for the fifth seed before they lost their spark plug off of the bench. And isn’t the right now, the homestretch to the end of the season the time you want to look at how a team is playing as they head into the playoffs?
Now obviously, the Thunder’s recent struggles are not all because James Harden has been injured. You’ll never hear me say that. But it’s crystal clear when you look at the last six games that the Thunder have really, REALLY missed him and his production. And it’s cost them.
So with that in mind, let’s have a look at the production from the shooting guard position and the bench that the Thunder have had since Harden has gone down, shall we?
New Jersey Nets:
Thabo Sefolosha – 4 points in 33 minutes
Kyle Weaver – 0 points in 10 minutes
Bench Production – 20 points
Thabo Sefolosha – 13 points in 26 minutes
Kyle Weaver – 0 points in 15 minutes
Bench Production – 14 points
Thabo Sefolosha – 2 points in 26 minutes
Kyle Weaver – 0 points in 12 minutes
Bench – 26 points
Toronto Raptors (blowout win):
Thabo Sefolosha – 6 points in 28 minutes
Kyle Weaver – 12 points in 20 minutes
Bench – 34 points
Indiana Pacers (blowout loss):
Thabo Sefolosha – 8 points in 23 minutes
Kyle Weaver – 4 points in 28 minutes
Bench – 44 points
San Antonio Spurs:
Thabo Sefolosha – 0 points in 21 minutes
Kyle Weaver – 0 points in 15 minutes
Bench – 15 points (Serge Ibaka being 10 of those)
Are you seeing a trend here?
Just for reference, on the season James Harden averages 9.9 points in 23.0 minutes.
Through these last six games the Thunder’s shooting guards are averaging 4.05 points a game in 20.75 minutes. Yes, Harden single-handedly doubles the Thunder’s other shooting guards’ production in scoring average.
Thabo Sefolosha is averaging 5.5 points in 26 minutes, Kyle Weaver is averaging 2.6 points in 16 minutes and the Thunder Bench is only averaging 25.5 points which isn’t all that bad, but if you take away the blowout win and loss where the starters saw a significant drop in playing time and the bench players got a lot more, skewing the point totals because of more bench playing time, you come to the Thunder Bench only averaging 18.75 points.
The reason you have to factor in the blowouts is because the game was already over and in a regular game/crunch time scenario the bench would see far fewer minutes and thus their production (or lack thereof) would be that much more critical to the Thunder’s chance for a victory.
Since Harden’s injury, Kyle Weaver has gone scoreless 4 times and Thabo has gone scoreless once. On the season, James Harden has never been held scoreless in a game.
Since Harden’s injury, the shooting guard tandem of Weaver and Sefolosha has scored in double digits only twice. In the six games before his injury, Harden scored in double figures 4 times, actually averaging double-digit scoring at 11.83 points.
4.05 points a game from your starting and backup shooting guard? Sorry, but that’s just not going to get it done. Especially not in a playoff hunt. Yes, at this point, it is officially a hunt again.
And I understand that Thabo and Kyle are defensive players. I get that their value and first priority is to defend. But that just highlights the fact that on one of the league’s least efficient offenses, the shooting guard position and the bench has got to contribute offensively in some way (scoring, playmaking) for that team to have a shot at a win and it’s not happening.
Not only that, but also don’t forget about the rotation changes that have gone into effect with Harden hurt. As a few people have noticed and commented, since Weaver has been so anemic on offense Kevin Durant is spending more time at the 2 instead of his natural 3 with the second unit, which means he is trying to guard quicker shooting guards instead of small forwards. And as his first year and handful of games showed, Durant really struggles trying to keep shooting guards in check (probably because, you know, he’s not a shooting guard).
So not only is Harden’s absence being felt on the offensive end but also on the defensive end, where Harden made truly remarkable strides from game to game throughout the year.
What does this all mean?
Well, for starters, we’re all getting a crystal clear picture of just how much James Harden contributed to this team so anyone who thought losing him to injury would not be a big deal need to rethink that position because he might be the third most important player to the Thunder when it’s all said and done. Secondly, it confirms what we pretty much already knew: James Harden is vital to the Thunder bench when it comes to scoring. And without him, that group struggles to put up enough points to put the Thunder in a position to win a ball game.
Now there are other contributing factors to this recent slide, but the fact of the matter is that the Thunder is going to have to find point production from their two shooting guards or from another position/player to make up for the loss of James Harden.
And so far, it’s been hit or miss.