Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant

What does Oklahoma City look like without James Harden?

21 Comments

Getting hit with the cold truth hurts. Getting hit with it 37 times? Ask a Thunder fan how that feels. Here’s the truth, and it has been evident long before last night’s coming out party: James Harden is a star in this league.

And no matter how you try to rationalize trading Harden while competing for a championship, Oklahoma City is worse off for it – at least for this season. That has less to do with skill than it does with fit, because Kevin Martin has long been one of the most underrated and efficient scorers in the league. Things will just look very different. Here’s how.

16-23 Feet: Getting Crowded

Don’t cry for the “lost art of the mid-range game.” It’s the worst shot in basketball, and teams that rely heavily on it typically don’t have much offensive success. To that point, the Charlotte Bobcats, offensive juggernaut they were, led the league in shot attempts from 16-23 feet last season.

Oklahoma City took the 7th least attempts from 16-23 feet last year, but all that’s about to change. Kevin Martin may be ultra-efficient, but he still likes to create space and fire off his jumper from this distance on the floor. Martin typically averages nearly 5 attempts per game from 16-23 feet. Compare that to James Harden, a guy who rarely pulled up for long-twos, as he shot exactly one per game last year.

With Westbrook and Ibaka firing from this distance more and more as the years get on, the Thunder offense could be a little streakier than it has been in the past. The Thunder did shoot the league’s best percentage from here last year (42.6%), but buyer beware. There was better stuff on the menu when Harden was creating options that no other player on the current roster is capable of replicating.

Nick Collison loses his dance partner

Part of the reason Harden was able to have so much success in the pick-and-roll was because of the chemistry he enjoyed with Nick Collison. Apart from being a great screener, Collison knew exactly when to slip, or re-set, or simply leave Harden to his own devices. It would be a shock if Martin enjoyed the same success with Collison, as he looks almost solely to free himself, rarely feeding the roll man with a clever bounce pass.

And that hurts. Like an offensive lineman in football that gets sick of pass protection and just wants to run the ball a few times, big men in basketball setting screens want to roll hard to the rim and get rewarded with the ball every now and then. Collison has routinely been one of the league leaders in plus/minus, but without being so closely attached to Harden, his effectiveness should dwindle a bit.

Pin-down screens for all

Ultimately, it’s Scott Brooks who faces the biggest task of replacing Harden with Martin, simply because Harden was such a good “freelance” player. Even though Martin is actually a very good isolation scorer, he’s by no means a primary ballhandler. While Harden could get you in your stuff and out of it when it got bad, Martin can only finish the equation.

What’s that mean? More Eric Maynor handling the ball with the second unit, and a whole handful of the “Kevin Durant package” plays, which are basically pin-down screens, designed for Martin. Although he’s still far from a creative offensive mind, Brooks has gotten better at getting Durant the ball closer to the basket. Doing the same with Martin is a good idea, as he’s led the NBA three of the last four years in free throw attempts per 36 minutes.

Stagnant offense

This should be the big fear for the Thunder – the offense becoming too stagnant. Oklahoma City sometimes has a tendency to take turns, which can really leave them without any flow. Usually, Westbrook or Durant are so good and so unstoppable that it doesn’t matter, and that will be the case again this year. But once playoff time rolls around, the Thunder will miss the ability of Harden to break down the defense as a primary ballhandler.

Softer defense

Harden doesn’t measure out as a great defender, but the raw goods were there. Martin, meanwhile, doesn’t offer much resistance at all, as he’s not laterally quick or nearly strong enough to deny anyone spots on the floor. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, but at least Harden had the physical ability to hang with a Dwyane Wade type – Martin just doesn’t.

A little more frail

Okay, this is the actual biggest fear – Kevin Martin missing significant time. Martin missed 26 games last year, 36 three years ago, 31 the year before that, and 21 the year before that. Harden, meanwhile, has only missed 10 games over his first three seasons.

Although stylistically they’ll go through changes, it’s important to remember that Oklahoma City was bold enough to draft Harden where they did in the first place. If they are so willing to hit the reset button over a few million dollars every year, it seems almost likely that there’s something underneath the surface that we can’t quite see. Until that reason surfaces, however, take the Thunder for what they are — a less varied, less durable, less likely championship contender.

Carmelo Anthony predicts Knicks-Bulls on Christmas or opening night

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 23: Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks shoots over Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on March 23, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
1 Comment

Carmelo Anthony said the Knicks should have gotten a Christmas game last year. In hindsight, the NBA reportedly agreed.

So, Anthony expects New York to get a marquee matchup — against the Bulls — on either Christmas or opening night.

Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal:

The storylines are overflowing.

The Knicks added Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah — two former Bulls — to join Anthony, who strongly considered Chicago in his last free agency. The Bulls answered with a couple big names: Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. They’ll join Jimmy Butler, whose stature is only growing — just like Kristaps Porzingis in New York.

Those are plenty of attention-drawing players, and the league will want to capitalize, even if we’re talking about a couple middling Eastern Conference teams.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that New York and Chicago are huge markets.

Newspaper uses crying Michael Jordan photo with article on his race statement

SPRINGFIELD, MA - SEPTEMBER 11: Michael Jordan to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame speaks during an induction ceremony on September 11, 2009 in Springfield, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Michael Jordan issued a statement on race in America and donated $2 million to a couple worthy causes.

That drew international coverage, including one curious photo choice:

Only in Malawi.

Watch Amar’e Stoudemire’s top 10 career plays (video)

3 Comments

When Amar’e Stoudemire retired, I said history will treat him better than present-day analysis — maybe even to the point he gets legitimate Hall of Fame consideration.

Get past Stoudemire’s injury-caused decline with the Knicks and his wayward years with the Mavericks and Heat, and Stoudemire was a heck of a player with the Suns (and in his first year in New York).

Thanks to the NBA, the process of remembering Stoudemire for his peak can begin immediately. I was blown away by the first few highlights before realizing they were just the introduction for the top 10.

Kings GM Vlade Divac: DeMarcus Cousins is ‘most dominant player in the whole world’

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 26:  DeMarcus Cousins #12 of the United States Men's National Team dribbles the ball up court against the China Men's National Team during the first half of a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at ORACLE Arena on July 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
9 Comments

Vlade Divac isn’t calling Rudy Gay with trade-talk updates.

So, how is the Kings general manager spending his time?

Watching DeMarcus Cousins with Team USA.

James Ham of CSN California on Cousins:

He’s primed to show the world what both he and plenty of others around the basketball world already believe — that he is the best big man in the world.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Kings general manager Vlade Divac said from his courtside seat. “He’s the most dominant player in the whole world. And being from Serbia, I have to root for Serbia, but I feel bad for them. He’s going to kill them.”

If we take Divac’s statement — “He’s the most dominant player in the whole world” — at face value, nope. LeBron James is. Other players like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are also better than Cousins, but big men can dominate in a way perimeter players can’t

If Divac meant just among big men, there’s a case. When Cousins is fully engaged, it’s one I’d definitely buy. He’s a load to handle inside, and his defense can be top-notch.

There are just too many times Cousins checks out. It’s a fine line, because Cousins’ emotions carries him to his highs. But he hasn’t yet found an ideal equilibrium point. His lows are still too low and too frequent.

That said, no center nears Cousins’ peak dominance. DeAndre Jordan and Draymond Green, when he plays the position, need too much help from teammates to be considered truly dominant. Andre Drummond isn’t polished enough. Even with his flaws, Cousins is probably already the NBA’s most dominant center.

Most dominant player, though? No. That’s a step too far.