Rolling Thunder thrive without Harden

By Fran Blinebury,

VIDEO: Inside the NBA’s crew discusses Kevin Durant’s streak of 25-point scoring games

It wasn’t so long ago when the citizens of a certain city in Texas were ready to vote Sam Presti as 2013 Man of the Year for the trade that sent James Harden to Houston.

The wise-cracking line was that if the Rockets eventually won an NBA championship, the OKC general manager would be first in line to get a ring.

And by the way, did he derail the hopes of the Thunder winning a title of their own?

Now, 17 months later, while the Rockets would probably still be willing to save him a seat in a victory parade, Presti’s move does not quite seem to be his folly.

After all, it was OKC that snapped San Antonio’s 19-game win streak — completing a 4-0 season sweep of the Spurs — and now bring the NBA’s second best record into the Toyota Center tonight to face Harden and the Rockets (9:30 ET, ESPN).

The plain and simple truth is that Presti’s decision to trade away Harden was all about money, something he never made a secret of. After having given new contracts to the cornerstone duo Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, along with a four-year extension for Serge Ibaka, there was simply no way small-market OKC could “max out” on Harden.

We can debate all through the night whether Presti might have been better served by keeping his Big Three together for one last run before he would have had to deal Harden. But Westbrook’s knee injury in Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs last season likely dashed championship dreams in any case.

Presti’s challenge after the Harden deal was done was to fill in the hole in the lineup and keep the Thunder moving forward.

Enter Reggie Jackson.

The immediate return for Harden from Houston was Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb. Martin capably filled in capably off the bench in Harden’s old role last season before jumping to Minnesota. Lamb held down that spot in the rotation through the first 60 games of this season before giving way to free-agent small forward Caron Butler, who was signed last month.

However, the added bonus in the equation is Jackson. He was drafted in the first round in 2011, but was mostly stuck behind the young backcourt trio of Westbrook, Harden and defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha. But since the Harden deal, he has gotten an opportunity to play. He’s performed well, with his first opportunity coming in the 2013 playoffs after Westbrook’s injury. This season, he’s averaging 13.3 ppg, 4.2 apg, 3.9 rpg and 1.1 spg. No one is putting him close to a level with Harden, but then neither is his $2.3 million salary, which helps make the rest of the OKC operation work.

As for Lamb, he’s seen his playing time cut over the last month because Butler can also hit the 3-pointer and adds size and rebounding on the wing. Still, the 21-year-old has upside that fits the Thunder blueprint going forward.

Presti also counted heavily on Ibaka, giving him an additional $48 million and expecting him to play up to that good faith. A year ago, it appeared to be a bad gamble — to many, OKC was choosing Ibaka over Harden. But this season he’s averaging career bests of 15.1 ppg and 8.7 rpg. While his blocked shots are down slightly (2.6 bpg, 3.0 bpg in 2012-13), the truth is Ibaka has concentrated less on trying to swat everything. As a result, he’s become a more consistent, more effective rim-protector and all-around better player.

Ultimately it was a choice between paying Ibaka or Harden. The Thunder might have correctly decided that, at some point on any championship contender, defense has to matter. They were, after all, exposed by the Heat in the 2012 Finals.

The Thunder’s banner still has to be carried by Durant and and a healthy Westbrook in order to win a championship.

Yet they also have an offense that is rated seventh and a defense rated fifth in the league. They are more balanced, and likely even better, overall.

While Presti can perhaps count on the eternal gratitude of every Rockets fan and maybe even that seat on their bandwagon, the fact is he did what he had to do to keep the Thunder on track.


  1. theCHI2014 says:

    True, they are thriving without Harden. But if they had Harden they would be near impossible to defeat with the development of KD, Westbrook, and the beard

  2. Fran Dingleberry says:

    Its amazing how OKC adds and subtracts players and remains to be a dominant force over the Clippers, Houston, Warriors, and even Spurs who are always the favorites going in and the losers leaving the building. The West is OKCs for as long as they have KD. Houston will have to bide its time and wait patiently for more of OKCs contract stars to leave.

  3. okc2014 says:

    I still have sour grapes that they traded both Harden AND Martin. Harden will forever be a Thunder in my mind….

  4. Unkle Daddy says:

    OKC should have kept Harden over anybody and everybody, it’s time to speak the truth, stop trying to justify keeping Serge, you messed up end of story, Serge is ok, Harden is really good there is difference. Somebody one said you take or keep the best player available regardless of position, they didn’t do that we all know that.

  5. thejerr says:

    they’re thriving without harden, but still cant get a better record than the spurs

  6. carlmalone says:

    Dont forget the Steven Adams draft pick. The future starting centre which actually has an offensive game. OKC have never had a big man with such potential around the rim. I’m a rockets fan… but it is almost uncanny that we got Harden and D12…..then OKC drafts Adams…a capable big man who has shown he can defend Dwight. This rivalry will be great over the next 5 years!

  7. Peter says:

    Yeah, this isn’t exactly news. More like an update. But it was a worthwhile read to me. I enjoy watching this team because they’re still fairly young and are unselfish. Sure, a lot can be said about other teams too in terms of unselfishness. But this team was built, like the Spurs. And not traded to obtain a championship core. Which is how most of the East teams are; no offense to them. Thus, I like the Thunder and Spurs for that reason since they were built from scratch mostly.

    • kitten mittens says:

      there are a lot of people that share that same perception, however I don’t understand it. The thunder (sonics when it started) basically tanked 3 seasons in a row to get their core: Harden-3rd overall pick 09, Westbrook-4th overall 08, Ibaka 24th overall 08, Durant-1st overall 07. So people prefer it when a team tanks for multiple seasons to get the players they want over a team that does everything it can to be competitive by aggressively trading and pursuing free-agents. Everyone complains about how the Miami team was put together, but when a team takes a dump all over the court for consecutive seasons to build through the draft everyone praises the front office for building ‘the right way’. Also btw the Spurs are built nothing like Thunder, the Spurs will play and develop just about anyone while winning 50+ games per season. I bet in 3 seasons or so people will be saying how they like the way the 76ers are built, just remember the giant turd they dumped on the court in just about every game this season when that day comes.

  8. Westbrookisreplaceable says:

    Westbrook is replaceable is laughable…watch basketball much?

  9. jake s. says:

    Not a lot of people in the league can do what James Harden can do. He is also a defensive liability. Because KD, Westbrook, and Jackson are distributing now, the only thing we miss Harden for is the 3-ball. Everyone else stepped up, and now we are ok. That’s what the Thunder organization is all about, leadership and confidence.

  10. Axe says:

    And Fran hasn’t even taken into account the lottery pick they got with that trade and which netted us Steven Adams. I say it was a good trade, especially regarding the long perspective.

  11. Dom says:

    Are you serious? Is this even news? Thunder thrived without Harden as soon as he left anyway…

  12. dex gadsden says:

    OKC all the way championship coming home with Thunder this year Durant and Westbrook is a great combination Westbrook gotta stay healthy.

    Dex Gadsden-South Carolina843

  13. thespectator says:

    bottom line is post season…sure okc beat spurs during the regular season but we all know teams turn up during playoffs…if okc beats the spurs in this years WCF miami will win the title and 3 peat..if spurs come out the west miami will most likely fall…i would like to see a surprise contender like the clippers make it out the west…maybe houston turns up…that would make things really interesting..this could be a great post season..time will tell…

  14. Game Time says:

    OKC is about Kevin Durant and his ability to lead the team now. Harden, and Westbrook stifled that in the past few years. With Harden’s trade and Westbrook’s injury KD stepped up and showed that he is a superstar capable of leading a team, so as long as OKC has Durant, a good coach like Brooks, and a young cast they have a shot at a title. Westbrook is replaceable. That being said. Go Heat!

  15. bryanjoelgarcia says:

    Reggie Jackson is better then those numbers.