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."
WATCH: Thunder crosses up Barnes, dunks on Odom
The Thunder are 33-9, with one loss in the last two weeks, after beating the Clippers at Staples Center on Tuesday night, 109-97. The Clippers are a troublesome matchup for the Thunder, having beaten them three times last season, but Chris Paul missed this meeting with a bruised knee and Durant took over L.A. just as James did five days before. While James thundered through the Lakers soft middle, Durant let it fly over the Clippers, sinking 5 of 6 three-pointers and three in the fourth quarter from his sweet spot atop the arc. Durant finished with 31 points and waved his arms at the crowd after an exclamatory dunk, under the same basket that James sneered after a ferocious finish.
The Clippers, who constructed their roster with the Thunder as a blueprint, were reminded that it takes more than Blake Griffin and a potent bench to topple the Western Conference champions. "They've seen a lot," said Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro. "They've been more consistent as they've stayed together."
There are two ways to look at the Thunder's gaudy record, tops in the NBA. 1) They didn't really need Harden and 2) Imagine how incredible they would be if they held onto him. Harden was reared in the same environment as Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, and he has made similar upgrades, emerging as a likely All Star in Houston. The Thunder has done everything to make the trade a moot point, but it's the kind of deal that will get nitpicked until they win a title, and possibly beyond. Sure, they're 33-9, but could they be 35-7? Or 37-5?
"James was a real key piece to our program," said Durant, still referring to the Thunder like a college team. "But we have Russ, myself and Serge....We've been part of this for four years. Every day we know each other more, know where our spots are, know where we like the ball....We continue to keep growing. The best part about us is that we're not a finished product. We can get better."
The Thunder are one game ahead of their pace last season, not because of anyone's absence, but everyone's growth. Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka -- one year older -- trump Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Harden. The math looks fuzzy, but once again the Thunder are defying logic, adding when it seems they subtracted.