The NBA world was collectively stunned on a cold night in late October. The Oklahoma City Thunder had just traded James Harden, the third member of the Thunder triumvirate, to the Houston Rockets less than a week before the start of the regular season. The move sent shock waves across the league as many wondered why a young team would seemingly self-destruct just months after appearing in the NBA Finals.
The popular thing to do was crucify the Thunder for making what seemed to be an extremely rash decision. The move sent Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and two draft picks to Oklahoma City, but to most outsiders, the move screamed of giving up in the present to continue to build the team for the future.
When Oklahoma City was sluggish coming out of the gates, many wrote them off as contenders in the Western Conference contenders, preferring to favor San Antonio or the rebuilt Los Angeles Lakers.
Harden wanted to be the alpha dog on a team and be paid like it. He's gotten both in Houston, but has sacrificed the type of success the Thunder has been experiencing over the past few seasons.
As the season played out, it became quite obvious the Thunder were just fine without James Harden, winning 60 games for the first time since the franchise moved to Oklahoma City and clinching the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the playoffs.
That's not to say the Thunder hasn't missed Harden at times. While Martin is a great player, there are many things he cannot do that Harden was excellent at, such as driving to the rim and being a facilitator on offense. Martin, more of a spot-up shooter than Harden, has filled the sixth man role for Oklahoma City admirably. After years of being the No. 1 scoring option, Martin has been able to sit back and let the game come to him rather than creating his own shot.
At times, that has been a problem for the Thunder, particularly when the second unit has struggled. It's in those times when OKC misses Harden the most.
Despite the occasional struggles, the Thunder still averaged 105.7 points per game, good for third in the NBA. The Thunder also led the league in plus-minus, ending the regular season at plus-9.2.
It's impossible to predict how the Thunder would have fared this season with Harden on the roster. Based on how Harden performed this season, it's pretty clear the Thunder could have been a bit better—particularly on offense with the second unit—but not by a wide margin. After all, Harden's biggest problems—turnovers and inconsistent defense—are the exact problems the Thunder deal with on a consistent basis.
It's also unclear who the real winner is in the trade. Houston obviously got an exceptional player in Harden, but the draft picks that Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti now holds in his hands are yet to be cashed in. The true value of the transaction won't be known until those picks are used and knowing Presti's genius when it comes to player evaluation and the draft, those picks could fetch OKC some excellent talent through draft or through trades.
The negativity surrounding Oklahoma City at the beginning of the season has all but disappeared because the Thunder has proven they can win without a big beard on the court. Now, as the Rockets and Thunder are set to face off in the first round of the playoffs, Oklahoma City can show Harden just how much they don't need him and how much success he's missing.