I keep getting this question.
So I bet the Thunder really wish they hadn’t traded James Harden right now amirite?
Right now? Yep. I bet they do. Sure would be nice to have James Harden at this present moment in accordance with all the current circumstances the team is dealing with.
But the short-term and selective memory about Harden is reaching levels of complete nonsense. So much that here I am, writing about James Harden again, a player that is currently no longer playing basketball, and a player that has not been with the Thunder for basically an entire season now. Alas.
With the Thunder down 3-1, fans and media are searching wildly for answers, reasons, scapegoats and problems. Here’s the biggest problem the Thunder are facing right now: THEY DON’T HAVE RUSSELL WESTBROOK. That’s it. Argument over. Done. The way the Thunder have performed without Westbrook has been admirable at times, and infuriating others. What’s frustrating about the turn this Grizzlies series has taken is that it doesn’t appear the Grizzlies are beating the Thunder — the Grizzlies are allowing the Thunder to beat the Thunder. The Thunder are in an incredibly challenging situation trying to piece together a contending team on the fly without one of the five or six best players in the world, but what’s been obvious is that the Thunder, despite not having Westbrook, are still good enough to advance. That’s what’s upsetting people, I think.
Back to this Harden thing though. There was always a picture painted as “Ibaka or Harden” and while that was never actually true, if you could make the trade at this present moment, the Thunder would be better off with Harden. Without Westbrook, having Harden would be a perfect luxury to pick up the slack. Another scorer, another ballhandler, another shooter to take a lot of pressure off KD. Having Harden right now would be perfect.
But that’s clearly not possible, nor reasonable. With the Thunder struggling, people keep bringing up Harden — most prominently, Bill Simmons — and while I didn’t like the trade the night it happened (while still understanding it), and still don’t love it now, what’s somehow being conveniently overlooked by the Harden apologists is that RUSSELL WESTBROOK IS HURT.
Despite being down 3-1, the way the Thunder have performed has actually been kind of impressive. The three losses to the Grizzlies, while irreversible and obviously losses no matter how you slice them, were all extremely close to being wins. When you watch the Thunder play against one of the four or five best teams in the league in this series, and come excruciatingly close to winning, it makes you think, “Hey, the Thunder are just one player away from being really good.” Yep, they are.
Kevin Durant said it perfectly about what the team has learned playing without Westbrook. “That we need him,” he said, via Darnell Mayberry. “We miss him.”
Here’s a fact: The Thunder were better this season without Harden than they were last season with him. There are a lot of factors that contributed to that, but in general, as a team, the Thunder were more productive and better throughout the season. The Thunder’s regular season resume features this: 60 wins, the top seed in the West, the top margin of victory in the league, the fourth best defense per 100 possessions and the second best offense. Kevin Martin wasn’t Harden by any stretch, but with Westbrook and Durant taking significant steps forward, and more importantly, freed to explore their individual developments more without Harden, the Thunder were better. Like I said before the playoffs started, that didn’t guarantee that they would be as successful as last season and we’d never know what they would’ve done with Harden this season, but the hard truth is that they were a better team.
So as people rehash and rue the trade Presti made five days before the season started, keep in mind, you can’t plan for an injury to Westbrook. In some ways, it’s made Presti’s decision to deal Harden even better. Because look at it like this: The Thunder aren’t winning a title without Russell Westbrook. They just aren’t. He means too much. He’s too good. Even with a Harden-Durant combo, the Thunder have to have Westbrook. So if Presti had rolled the dice and essentially taken Harden this season at a one-year rental with the plan to watch him walk in the summer, it would’ve been a completely wasted gamble. Really, Presti’s conservative, low-risk philosophy might’ve saved the Thunder from disaster. Would the Thunder be able to get past the Grizzlies with Harden? Probably. Past the Spurs? Good chance. But past the Heat? Nope. Do the Thunder with they had James Harden right now? Of course. But it’s probably a good thing they don’t.
(While we’re revising with the what ifs, I guess it’s worth noting that if Presti hadn’t dealt Harden, the Rockets would likely not have made the playoffs, meaning Patrick Beverley would probably be still playing somewhere in Russia, meaning Westbrook would’ve never been hurt. So in that light, BAD MOVE PRESTI. The sad part is, those that are playing the what-if blame game actually believe this.)
Keep in mind, with the Harden deal, the Thunder understood the lines were drawn in October. League sources maintain Harden and his representation made it extremely clear it was max or bust when negotiations started last July. The Thunder tried to whittle him down anyway, but again, lines were drawn. So this idea that maybe you play out the season and try again next summer wasn’t happening. It was either deal Harden now, or watch him walk later. His trade value was the highest it was going to be in October when he could still sign the five-year max with someone, so in order for OKC to get the most back, it had to be then.
Did the Thunder get a fair trade back for Harden? Did they get enough? Martin certainly hasn’t excelled and in a lot of ways, has disappointed, especially in the postseason. But keep in mind, the trade for Harden wasn’t really for Kevin Martin. It was more about that lottery pick and Jeremy Lamb. Because like Harden would’ve been, Martin is basically a one-year rental on an expiring deal. Sure, they could re-sign him. But that doesn’t seem especially likely.
And while Lamb’s inclusion, or lack thereof, has been disappointing and makes it seem as if the trade was a major bust, most should know not to give up on the Thunder developmental philosophy so quickly. Remember Reggie Jackson, who spent time in the D-League last season and even this season? He’s one of young players being cultivated in the system, just as Lamb is now, along with Perry Jones III. It’s been disappointing Lamb hasn’t played a bigger role this season, but just because he couldn’t find time on a 60-win team that didn’t need him in the regular season doesn’t mean he’s forever a lost cause. It’s hard to be patient in the NBA, especially when you have a title window. But that’s one of Presti’s, and thereby the Thunder’s, best qualities. They never lose sight of the long view, the vision. There’s more to this organization’s health than the current season and while that’s hard to grip as a fan that has a crippling thirst that can only be quenched by a title, the franchise stays on the big picture.
Point is, don’t give up on Jeremy Lamb. And therefore, don’t give up on this trade yet.
Continuing to rue the Harden deal, especially now, makes little to no sense. The Thunder made their trade — a sensible one at that — and in a lot of ways, were proven right about it. The team blended beautifully and coming in to the postseason, appeared completely prepared to have a shot at a championship. Sources close to the team are adamant that the players were convinced they were going to storm back to the Finals and beat the Heat. I can’t stress that enough. They believed it.
Instead, they were dealt a debilitating blow that destroyed those title dreams in one quick moment. It’s not fair to stare into the past and judge the Harden trade, and Martin, and Presti. You can’t revise history based on unforeseeable circumstances.
Do the Thunder miss James Harden right now? No, they miss Russell Westbrook.