Can Oklahoma City return to the NBA Finals without James Harden? The first impressions weren't promising, as Harden scored 37 to win his debut with the Rockets and the Thunder were ineffective offensively during their 86-84 loss Thursday at San Antonio.
But it's neither fair nor relevant to weigh the Thunder's bold move based on these opening games. Harden is going to be an entirely different player in Houston, where he'll be the No. 1 option, than he was for OKC, where he was No. 3 in line behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. If he scores prolifically for a bad team, will that necessarily make Harden a more valuable player than he was last season, when he averaged an unremarkable 16.8 points to help push the Thunder to within three wins of the championship?
"That first game was an anomaly,'' said an Eastern conference advance scout of Harden's 37-point, 12-assist win in Houston's opener Wednesday at Detroit. The scout's point was that neither the Pistons nor the Rockets are likely to be contending for the playoffs. "The way Houston is going to play, he's going to have a chance to put up big numbers,'' the scout said. "They're spreading the floor and as long as he has a couple of shooters around him, he's going to be hard to guard.
"But Harden hasn't been in that situation yet when the pressure is on you to have to deliver every night. Is he going to be comfortable doing that? He says he is, but we all know how the dynamic changes when people depend on you to do stuff.''
The scout wasn't trying to predict that Harden will fail to become a leading star for Houston; he was simply pointing out that he has to prove he can do for the Rockets what Durant has done for the Thunder, which is to carry them to title contention.
At the same time, Durant is now going to have to prove that he can keep the Thunder in contention without Harden as the team's third star. Kevin Martin, the key player to arrive in the Houston trade, made a strong debut of his own Thursday in San Antonio with 15 points on 10 shots, including a spot-up three he made shortly after Durant had passed out of a double-team. That catch-and-shoot jumper by Martin tied the game at 80-80 with 3:31 remaining, and free throws by Westbrook would give OKC an 84-81 advantage into the final minute.
"I think Kevin Martin is a super talent,'' said another Eastern scout. "Sam Presti (the Thunder GM) did a brilliant job getting a guy like Martin, who is not that much worse than Harden.''
This scout was comparing OKC's trade to the deals made by the Nuggets (in moving Carmelo Anthony) and the Jazz (in moving Deron Williams) two seasons ago. "Is James Harden in the Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams league? No, but he's close to that level,'' the scout said. "When you compare those trades to the trade Sam made, I think Sam got more for Harden than those teams got for Carmelo or Williams.
"I know they're going to miss Harden and the fact that he could do so many things for their second unit. But they're still a good team, and they're still going to be able to throw the ball to Kevin Martin and get points out of him.''
The bottom line is that Martin should be able to replicate the scoring production that Harden generated in his second-unit role with the Thunder. But Martin is going to be able to generate the assists as well as the other winning plays that earned Harden the Sixth Man Award last year.
"But I don't think that's going to change their status,'' the scout went on in rating the Thunder's prospects for this season. "With or without Harden, I don't think they were going to get back to the Finals or be able to beat Miami.''
The view of this scout is that the Thunder, as constructed with Harden as their third star together with a low-scoring frontcourt of power forward Serge Ibaka and center Kendrick Perkins, weren't going to be able to overcome the talent of the Lakers (in spite of their poor start) or the champion Heat. Instead, the Thunder will be able to use the next couple of years to reinvent themselves around Martin (should they choose to re-sign him this summer at a much cheaper salary than they would have owed Harden), rookie Jeremy Lamb and the two first-round picks they received in the trade with Houston.
"It could help them become a championship team when and if the Heat break up,'' said this scout in reference to LeBron James's free agency in 2014, "and if the Lakers are done in a year or two. It could put them back up as the top team in the West.''
In the meantime, the Thunder were beaten by a pair of Tony Parker jumpers in the final half-minute Thursday. The Spurs won this game without their own starring sixth man, Manu Ginobili, who was sidelined by back spasms, and it will be their contention that they'll be able to handle both the Thunder and the Lakers in the playoffs this season. In six months all of these theories will give way to fact; but for now the Thunder are going to have to learn to deal with the big-number linescores Harden is likely to produce in Houston.