It’s a long road to a championship and the Oklahoma City Thunder hope they will be in the race again come June and not sitting on the side of the highway watching other teams go past them.
The James Harden trade three days before the start of the season is going to have an impact on the chemistry of the team. After watching the Thunder in person and speaking with some players and team personnel, it appears that they have cleared the emotional hurdle of losing the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, who was not only an important player but a friend as well. Some of the players may always have "detached concern" for their former teammate but with games to play, they need to refocus their efforts.
Kevin Martin is a good scoring replacement for Harden while Eric Maynor may be counted on to pick up some of the playmaking and ball handling duties. The Thunder will probably get the same production, but it now has to come from two players instead of one.
They have taken a step back, albeit a small one and maybe just momentarily. It’s akin to a pit stop in an auto race. Oklahoma City momentarily pulled its car off the road to make a change they hope will help over the long run while trying not to lose any ground in the race during the short term.
During the post game interview following Oklahoma City’s 108-88 win over Toronto, Martin downplayed the importance of team chemistry, pointing to his experience in the league as a more important factor. But Martin has never been on a team that has made it to the finals let alone a team that is expecting to win it all.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti continues to follow the system in which he was educated in San Antonio. The Spurs family atmosphere asks players to sacrifice for the team. As a result they have been able to field a competitive and championship calibre squad consistently without being hamstrung by bad contracts. Pay one max deal, pay the others slightly less and if everyone is willing to forgo a bit of money, then there is a chance to win because there will be money left to address team needs should they arise.
Yes, Harden claimed he was willing to take less money but one wonders what the truth is and what other utterances are made for public consumption. Add that to the fact that Harden had made sacrifices for the team in the past so his "give-again meter" may have been on low. It sure seems like the case after reading the timeline around the decicionto sign the extension offered by the team. Luckily for Harden he was traded, by chance I’m told, to a team that had room to offer him a max contract. It was not a case of let’s help him out and find a team that can pay him.
Thunder beat writer Darnell Mayberry discussed the deal on Sportsnet 590 – The FAN on the Tim and Sid show and said that Presti called Toronto to make inquiries before Harden was dealt to Houston. While that is true, when you look at what he eventually garnered in the trade, you wonder if Toronto could have put together a better package while still adhering to their plan for the future. Although sometimes you have to change direction, it sure seems like the Raptor organization is committed, at least currently, to a building long term in the proper way.
Kevin Martin is in the final year of his contract and if it’s a successful season and he is willing to take some of the money that was offered to Harden, he could be a viable option. If not, Presti will have flexibility moving forward with Martin’s contract coming off the books this summer.
All eyes will be on Okalahoma City this season after Presti’s gamble. To use the auto racing analogy again, he decided to change an important part of the engine. The car is out of the pit and running again and hopefully they didn’t lose much ground. If the Thunder get to the finish line and take the checkered flag next June, everything will be fine, if not, some may wonder what part of the car will be tinkered with next. Final judgements will be made next spring, but for now there are still a whole bunch of laps to go.