While many national media members try to skew the Thunder’s trade of James Harden into a Harden vs. Russell Westbrook situation, the truth is that the choice was between Harden and Serge Ibaka. The choice the Thunder really made was one of basketball philosophy: they bet that two ball handlers and a big man was a better title-contending core than three perimeter ball handlers. They chose the former and banked on three things to happen: that Kevin Durant would make subtle, but important improvements, that Kevin Martin would be able to carry the bench unit, and that Serge Ibaka would make massive strides on offense. All three of these things have happened and helped Oklahoma City to the top record in the NBA. Lets take an in depth look at each.
Kevin Durant’s Improvements
Kevin Durant has made massive improvements on both sides of the ball and solidified himself as clearly the second best player in the league. We knew Durant could score, but this year he has made vast improvements in the other facets of his game, most notably his passing. He has upped his assists per game and assist rate, but more importantly, Durant is just seeing the whole floor better.
In the above play he comes off an Ibaka screen with a little bit of space. Where last year he might force it and attack the whopping four defenders in the lane, this year, he sees how Caron Butler has rotated off Thabo Sefalosha in the corner and hits him with a tough cross court pass. It should be noted that there are some growing pains in learning to make these types of passes. His turnover rate on the pick and roll has skyrocketed to 25% according to mySynergySports. Not ideal, but you have to take the good with the bad. He has also made huge improvements in the post, but I won’t go into detail as Tom Westerholm broke it down here.
Kevin Martin Anchoring The Bench Unit
As a team the Thunder have had 351 possessions (in approximately 693.9 minutes) with Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka off the court and Kevin Martin on per nbawowy. In these minutes the Thunder are outscoring their opponents by 6.8 points per 100 possessions (That would place fifth in the league). Martin smoothly transitions from a spot up shooter with the big three on the floor to a polished scorer and focal point on offense when he’s on the court alone. He is a top 15 player in points per play in Isolation, Pick and Roll, and Handoff situations according to Synergy. He has thrived carrying the offensive load in limited minutes and the scoring stats he is putting up aren’t a huge drop off from what Harden put up last year, though with not quite the same ability to create for others.
With improved play from Reggie Jackson and the always steady Nick Collison, the bench hasn’t been a problem as some thought it would be going into the season.
Serge Ibaka’s Offensive Strides
Ibaka has made incredible improvements on offense this season. He has become possibly the best pick and pop big man and developed great chemistry with Westbrook on this play.
He is the fourth best midrange shooter in the NBA among players with over 100 attempts at 48.8% according to NBA.com. He has even tinkered with shooting from three (8-24 on the season). This improved shooting has improved OKC’s spacing and taken pressure off of Westbrook and Durant. The Thunder have even started running small plays for him.
He has picked his scoring overall in the absence of Harden become a player that can legitimately be the third best on a title team.
Many wrote off the Thunder’s title hopes when they traded Harden, but they have been an even better team this year due to the three above things. Who knows what would have happened had they kept Harden. Maybe Durant and Ibaka wouldn’t have made these improvements. Maybe Harden gets offered the max next summer. OKC would have then had to choose between losing him for nothing and matching an offer sheet, thus hamstringing their ability to put together a good roster. Hindsight is 20:20, but right now it seems Oklahoma City made the right move by trading Harden. All hail Sam Presti.