HOUSTON — Comfortable in a new city and a new role as top gun of the Rockets’ offense, James Harden seems on his way to his first appearance amid the glitz and glamor of the NBA All-Star Game.
Of course, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have already been there, done that, more than once, and will likely return to the Toyota Center for another go-around on Feb. 17. But really they have their sights set only on another shiny object — the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
And the seemingly counterintuitive truth is the Thunder might actually be closer to achieving that goal without their former running mate.
In other words: No Harden, no problem.
That is not in any way to diminish the skill and work ethic of Harden, who has been everything the Rockets hoped for and more. He can weave through traffic, find his way to the basket and draw fouls almost in his sleep. He pull up and stab in a 3-point dagger from almost any place over the half-court line. He has been the confident, veteran force who has been able to lift the Rockets onto his shoulders and carry them through fourth quarters as a foundation to build upon while they continue to shape a young supporting cast.
Yet Harden’s departure just might enable the Thunder to become even better and take the last step to winning a title.
For one, there is no underestimating the ease with which his replacement Kevin Martin has slid into Harden’s old spot. He can move without the ball, can score efficiently by drawing a high rate of fouls and is, in fact, even a better spot-up shooter in the Thunder offense.
“To be able to find the open spots in the defense, take a pass and just knock it down is very important to the way we want to play,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “I was familiar with some of Kevin Martin’s game and knew he was a scorer, but I didn’t really know he was a spot-up guy until he came here. It’s been a significant addition to our team.”
Perhaps more significant, the departure of Harden has forced Durant to take on more of an all-around role in the OKC offense. While his scoring is down slightly this season, his assists and his assist/turnover ratio has improved. It seems he is becoming even more effective as a facilitator, drawing defenses to him and finding his open teammates.
There are still going to be those nights when Durant can and will fill up the bucket for 40 or 50. But without Harden to come off the bench and provide an offensive burst of his own, Durant been much more effective in getting the rest of his teammates — Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison and Martin — more involved on a more consistent basis. By subtracting Harden from the equation, Durant has had to become a more well-rounded player, even more of a leader, and the Thunder have gone from a three-headed monster to overall better team and
In two games against his former team, Harden has shot just 9-for-33 (27.2 percent) while averaging 21 points.
“James was really good for us,” said Brooks. “He’s a terrific player. He’s an All-Star player. He’s definitely at that level, and he’s going to be that way for many, many, many years. He still has improvement to make in his game and he’s really good now. But we never looked at it that way. We looked at it as whoever we have we’re going to get better with them and move forward.”
No Harden, no problem.