HANG TIME WEST – We have a winner in the Rockets-Thunder trade.
James Harden instantly becomes a max player on the next contract because no way Houston risks losing him after spending heavy Saturday to get Harden from Oklahoma City, and the Rockets win the day by finally landing a player with star capability. But, meanwhile, the Lakers just became bigger favorites to win the West.
The Thunder traded their third-best player — the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, the No. 2 facilitator on offense after Russell Westbrook — for one player with NBA experience, Kevin Martin. Oklahoma City also gets well-regarded rookie Jeremy Lamb, Toronto’s first-round pick via Houston (with various protections the next five seasons) and Dallas’ first-rounder via Houston (protected through 20 in 2013). So this could one day turn out to be a good save by general manager Sam Presti, once management decided it would not find common ground with Harden on an extension. For now, though, it is an obvious blow.
The Thunder are not going away and could, bolstered by the experience of playing into June for the first time, make another drive to the Finals. It’s just that they are not as good as they were Saturday morning.
The Lakers, the ultimate in win-now mode, definitely were not sorry this trade happened. OKC’s big three of Kevin Durant, Harden and Westbrook played 84 minutes together while eliminating L.A. in five games in the West semifinals, and the Thunder outscored the Lakers during that time by 47 points. As one of several players to hurt the Lakers in transition, Harden got to the line and averaged 16 points in the series despite poor shooting.
No, not sorry at all.
You still don’t want to run into the Thunder starters in a best-of-seven. Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha is still a unit with June potential. But nothing changes the reality that the Lakers and Clippers got better in the offseason while the Thunder, though helped by being a year older, just took a roster hit.
Does it drop the Thunder behind the Spurs and/or Clippers?
Possibly, but not definitely. Oklahoma City is still loaded with positives and finishing second would not be a surprise, but the top of the conference is such a cage match that a swing of a few games in the regular season could make a huge difference. One game in the playoffs could mean early vacation.