HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — If anyone in the Oklahoma City Thunder locker room knows about the strain a blockbuster trade can put on a team it’s Kendrick Perkins.
The Thunder center, whose trade from Boston three season ago signaled the championship rise of his new team and a fall from that perch for his old team, is doing his best to convince anyone willing to listen that James Harden‘s trade to Houston is not what’s ailing the Thunder right now.
“We’re trying to win,” Perkins told reporters after the Thunder lost the Atlanta Hawks Sunday, their second loss in three games. “We’re not really talking about the trade. The trade is done. We’ve got enough talent in here to win games.”
Oh, how quickly we forget, Kendrick (the big fella cried after being traded to Oklahoma City, for those of you who don’t remember).
How about a little refresher course, courtesy of my main man A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com:
“There was a lot of crying, lot of hugging going on,” Perkins said before his former team left to go play the Denver Nuggets. “And a lot of it was me.”
Perkins, who had played for the Celtics for seven years, was dealt to Oklahoma City along with Nate Robinson in exchange for forward Jeff Green.
“I miss them,” Perkins said. “I ain’t gonna lie. I’m gonna miss the hell out of them. It’s going to be hard leaving them behind, leaving this team behind and the fans and this city. But this is a business, and being traded is part of that business.”
His Boston teammates were also upset with the trade.
“It’s not even about a teammate. It felt like you lost a family member today,” Kevin Garnett said after Boston’s 89-75 loss to Denver. “Tough day.”
Even if Harden’s departure isn’t the sole cause of what’s stalling the Thunder right now — and he is the reigning Kia Sixth Man of the Year — it’s clear that there are some chemistry issues that must be resolved. Much like the rival Los Angeles Lakers, whose offseason changes were far more extreme, the Thunder need time to figure things out before they get back to the business of playing the way we all expect a team built for championships to play.
Removing one key ingredient from a championship puzzle can absolutely devastate chemistry. You remember how long it took the Celtics to get over losing Perkins, don’t you? They swore that it wasn’t a factor and that it wasn’t the cause of their problems in the playoffs that year. But it was hard to mistake what was going on. A player who helped anchor the post for one of the best defensive teams in the league was gone. And there was no way the Celtics could hide it.
The Thunder lost the player who served as their game-changer on a nightly basis. Kevin Martin can put up similar numbers, and has, but the dynamic is different. The player who balanced Kevin Durant‘s yin and Russell Westbrook‘s yang was Harden. Now that he’s lighting up opposing defenses for Houston, alongside Jeremy Lin, it’s inevitable that the Thunder would miss what he brought to the party.
To his credit, Thunder coach Scott Brooks knows that he and his staff have some tweaking to do before they get back to normal (or as close to it as possible). More from Barry Tramel of the Oklahoman:
“We know there’s a lot of work to be done,” Brooks said. “We still have to figure some things out.”
The Harden trade messed with the Thunder’s chemistry, no doubt. Foreman Scotty still is mixing and matching, trying to figure out how to play his revamped second unit.
But maybe the trade messed with the Thunder psyche even more. Despite Perk’s proclamation, maybe the Boomers have been like the rest of us. So focused on how Martin will replace Harden, they’ve forgotten what made them great in the first place.
The Thunder A team was no good Sunday night, even with Durant producing 22 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, albeit with six turnovers. The starters played together for 181/2 minutes and were outscored 41-35. That doesn’t have anything to do with James Harden.
Early returns show that Martin will be fine. Harden’s first two Rocket games channeled Oscar Robertson, with 37 and 45 points and monster assists. But K-Mart now has 62 points in three games, on 53-percent shooting.
If Harden and K-Mart are going to play “Can You Top This?” all season, we’re in for a wild ride. But the Harden/Martin debate was the least of the Thunder’s problems Sunday night.
The Harden/Martin debate is a waste of time. Both players are going to do what they do, no matter what.
As Perkins knows better than most, the real question is what the players left behind will do. Who is going to fill the void? Who is going to step up and step out of the shadows to replace the intangible bond that Harden brought to the Thunder?
Until they have a concrete answer to those questions, the Thunder will continue to drift.