LOS ANGELES -- The Oklahoma City Thunder have always challenged conventional wisdom -- they play in one of the smallest markets in professional sports, in a region consumed by college football, and implausibly built the best home-court advantage in the NBA -- but now they are defying basic arithmetic. They traded the league's fifth leading scorer, an adept playmaker who takes and makes more free throws than anybody, and somehow they are putting up more points with more assists while shooting more free throws at a higher rate. It makes no sense, for a team to lose James Harden and improve in all the areas he most excels, yet that is precisely what the Thunder have done this season.
The Thunder's spike speaks less to the wisdom of the trade, which can't be properly judged until June at the earliest, and more to the immense potential of the players they retained. When the Thunder reached the Finals last year, they were appealing because of their talent, but also their age. Among the core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Harden, no one was over 24. The most enthralling part of the Thunder was how far they remained from completion.
The evolution of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka has continued unabated, without Harden to set them up on his beloved pick-and-rolls. Durant is shooting higher than 50 percent for the first time in his career. His assists are up, kicking out of double teams, and his turnovers are down. He has committed to defense like never before, inspired by his summer workout partner, LeBron James. Westbrook, meanwhile, is hoisting fewer shots but grabbing more rebounds and dishing out nearly three more assists per game. And Ibaka has made the most dramatic strides, in just about every relevant category, besides the one that came most naturally to him: blocks. They are all more balanced players, not because they are compensating for Harden's departure, but because they are developing on schedule. "If I lead the league in scoring, that's cool," said Durant, who does currently lead the league in scoring. "But I'm more focused on passing, rebounding, doing everything on the floor."