James Harden Trade Puts Chemistry Ultimate Test

“Wow”

With that simple tweet, Kevin Durant told us everything we needed to know about the trade that shocked the basketball landscape last night.

james-harden-trade

Things will be much different now in Oklahoma City, where the “three best (basketball) friends that anyone could ever have” are no longer together.

The trade between the Thunder and Rockets is this, via ESPN.com:

The Thunder acquired guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick in the surprising deal that was completed Saturday night. Oklahoma City also sent center Cole Aldrich and forwards Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to Houston.

Reactions came quickly and were all over the map.

Israel Gutierrez mused that because of Martin’s scoring and Lamb’s potential, the move wouldn’t hurt OKC’s title chances this year at all – AND that they got better for the future.

Marc Stein saw things differently.  “The Thunder broke up a trio of All-Star-caliber kiddies that truly loved playing together.”

Maybe Tom Haberstroh offered the most rational assessment of all:

Definitely a bad move for the short term, and potentially a good move for the long term. There’s just no two ways about it: The Thunder just lost an Olympian and got very little in return for this season. Kevin Martin is a brittle, one-dimensional player who might be the worst defender at his position. This is about a small-market team seeking future flexibility.

As soon as the shock has worn down, NBA pundits will get out their laptops and try to analyze this thing from a numbers standpoint.

What they will find is that OKC is getting a fantastic scorer in Martin – a guy who has averaged 18 points a game for his career.  He’s also been one of the league’s premier three-point shooters over that time as well – hitting 38% of his shots from long distance.

No, he can’t guard anyone, but that will be okay. OKC will play him in the scoring role off the bench, and they still have Thabo Sefolosha and even the young Jeremy Lamb to guard perimeter players.

OKC is also getting several draft picks, which will help them stock their roster rather cheaply in the coming years.

The core of the team is still VERY young – with Ibaka, Westbrook, and Durant all less than 24 years old.  The addition of Jeremy Lamb to a team that already included Perry Jones, Eric Maynor, and Hasheem Thabeet (just kidding about the last guy) could give them an incredibly young AND talented six-man core.  No other team in the league can boast that.

On paper, this team looks frightening for the foreseeable future.

Yet, basketball isn’t played on paper.

And the guys that know this – the guys that have to battle OKC every night – the guys that would theoretically know whether or not this was a good trade…their responses were clear.

As I was scrolling down the list of NBA tweets, two things jumped out at me:  1) Who on earth is Malik Allen?  2) Wow…everybody hates this trade for Oklahoma City.

You see, in our world of fantasy sports and video games, we as fans tend to view things far too black and white. Hardcore basketball fans have, for years, taken control of their favorite team while playing NBA Live and piled up assets like Daryl Morey.

Pacers fans have traded away Danny Granger for a young power forward for the last three seasons, just so they could get the exciting young Paul George more run at his natural position.

Lakers fans have been trading for Steve Nash since the beginning of time.

And somewhere, an Oklahoma City fan has probably tinkered with his roster – surrounding Durant with pure shooters or big men by trading away Westbrook, Harden, or both.

It works. On paper.  But the players know better – in real life, basketball isn’t played on paper.

Chemistry matters.  And it’s this very thing that makes basketball so great.  

Hoosiers can happen in this sport. And it does – repeatedly.

When a team really likes each other, and enjoys playing with and for each other, the team can accomplish great things. On the flip side, we can point to team after team that choked and lost to a weaker opponent – all because of a lack of chemistry.

We could look at the oft-maligned 2004 USA basketball team. While many of America’s best chose to sit the Olympics out, that team still had Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson at their absolute peaks. Have you ever looked at the teams they lost to? Puerto Rico – boasting Carlos Arroyo as its best player – beat that team handily.

Chemistry issues made the 2011 Miami Heat fall apart to a team that it was far superior to physically. The 2011 Mavericks loved each other, and you could tell.  From Dirk’s fadeaway to Jason Terry’s fearlessness, from Tyson Chandler’s toughness to Deshaun Stevenson’s lunacy – that team just worked.

For several seasons now, basketball “experts” (including myself) have wanted to break the Thunder up. It doesn’t make any logical sense to keep Westbrook and Durant on the same team.

Why would you ever surround the greatest scorer, possibly of all time when it’s all said and done, with a shoot-first point guard that has a below average jump shot?

Why didn’t the Thunder draft Ricky Rubio, a guy that would have made it his nightly goal to get Durant and Westbrook 30 ppg, instead of James Harden?

Our love of Durant’s personality and Westbrook’s incredible athleticism actually skewed our perception of the Thunder as a whole – and most of us came to a conclusion that was simply not true: The Thunder were great because of their incredible talent.

Because their best players were all so young, we ignored the idea that chemistry could have had anything to do with their success.  

But by all accounts, Durant, Harden, and Westbrook loved each other.  They loved to just play the game. When Harden made Team USA this summer over some other guys that probably fit a little better, nobody was surprised. Why? Because the other guys just got him.

No matter how much writers like me tried to insert drama into their situation, the young Thunder trio wouldn’t have any part of it.

Every time Westbrook took atrocious shots at the end of a game, Durant had his back. When Harden played the worst five games of his life last year in the NBA Finals, his friends had his back. When Durant lit up the Olympics with his scoring this summer, Westbrook and Harden were the loudest cheers on the bench.

Sometimes in sports, you are privileged enough to play on a team that really does care about more than winning. The Thunder had that going for them. And now they don’t.

As I was watching Notre Dame put the finishing touches on their victory last night, I waited patiently for my friend Ben – the biggest OKC fan I know – to contact me in some way. Would it be a long, ranting email? Maybe instead, a short, somber text message? I waited and waited, but nothing ever came to me until this morning – a simple “sad face” on my facebook wall.

That’s what Kevin Durant was really saying to us on twitter last night – “Our team was about more than just winning. Now it won’t be.”

The reality is this: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Oklahoma City Thunder are still going to be great.  They have too much talent and too much drive to just “bow out” to the Lakers, Spurs, and Heat. They will be a playoff team, and might be able to ride a hot hand to the conference finals or further.

But they will most definitely be different this year.

That spark will be a little dimmer. That crowd will be a little quieter.  Their joy will be a little less infectious.

Rip up that paper…these Thunder will never be the same.



About Jon Washburn

Jon Washburn grew up in Indianapolis, IN and as such, is a diehard Pacers, Colts, and Cubs fans. When it comes to college, he cheers for Notre Dame football fan and Purdue basketball. Yes, this sounds shady, but since he grew up without cable, he learned to love Notre Dame - the only team on TV. Glenn "The Big Dog" Robinson was at Purdue when Jon was in his formative years, so he latched onto them as well. Did that make him a fair-weather fan at the time? Sure. Give him a break...he was 8...and he has stayed with those teams ever since. Currently, he lives in Charleston, SC with his wife who grew up in Cleveland. Although he is no longer physically in the Midwest, his heart will always be there. Jon goes by the name "Twitch" because he has Tourette's Syndrome. Hit him up on his twitter @jwtwitch.

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