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Ball Don't Lie

The Oklahoma City Thunder won the James Harden deal, but the parting will be painful

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Nope. (Getty Images)

By any conceivable metric, Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti "won" the deal that sent James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and eventual draft picks. The sheer haul for Harden's services, in addition to the added assets and potential payroll flexibility, puts a perfect capper on the startling turn that was first reported by Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski late Saturday evening. That's not to pile on Houston GM Daryl Morey for his take in this transaction, his team has excellent talent and flexibility moving forward, but rare is the desperate NBA move turned into something as palatable as what Presti procured.

Now that we've had a day or two to consider the move, let's revisit the fact that this was a shocker. At worst, had contract negotiations broken down between the Thunder and Harden, most figured Oklahoma City would ride out the season with an All-Star scorer coming off the bench while making rookie scale money; possibly dealing him once things got nervy midseason at the trade deadline. Instead, Presti moved swiftly and without reflex, and the Thunder have -- potentially, eventually -- a better team to show for it.

The one sticking point? The one thing that we keep overlooking, while rightfully lauding Presti? The Thunder won't have James Harden anymore.

It's true that Harden shot just 37.5 percent against the Miami Heat in last year's Finals, and doesn't match up well against that squad. It's true that few — hell, "no" — teams can turn a profit with the sort of payroll the Thunder were on pace for, should they settled on a max or near-maximum extension with James. It's true that he provides the one overwhelming game-tilter, scoring, that OKC already had in abundance. It's true that he stole your lighter, and it's also true that he lost the map. There are reasons to argue away Harden's move to Houston.

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Kevin Martin, though respected, is not James Harden. I can't get past this point. He's a scorer, to be sure, but NBA teams aren't created like baseball squads in a way where they can replace the ability to get on base or drive the ball into open areas regardless of a batter's stance or shape. Kevin Martin scores in a way not unlike that of Kevin Durant. James Harden? He makes a difference in a completely different way when he drives the ball or sets up a screen and roll, something that Martin can't hope to match as he curls off those screens.

Paint points matter, as does putting the ball close to the goal in a way that causes defenses to collapse and teammates to find themselves wide open. And the reason Harden's 2011-12 assist ratio (the percent of possessions he used that ended in an assist going next to his name on the box score) dwarfs that of Martin's is because they play two completely different styles of offensive basketball. Harden's career assist percentages entering last season were a tick up from Martin's career averages, but it's hard to see James not sustaining something close to his 2011-12 marks as he moves along and continues to warm to the idea of hitting that guy in the corner.

Once he's in the paint, mind you. A place where Martin (who did improve as a passer last season) isn't often in. This isn't some sportswriter rant about Martin piling up big points on bad teams — we've been trumping this guy up for years, and are huge fans of what he brings — the point is that the 2012-13 Oklahoma City Thunder will be less dangerous even with Martin's presence, the expected growth of Durant and Russell Westbrook, and the occasional flourishes of what should be a great rookie year from Jeremy Lamb.

Which is unfortunate, because this is a team that would like to win now in spite of the squad's enviable youth. Martin not enough, Lamb not quite there, and another "let's see what happens in May" sort of season in place.

(It's also unfortunate that the team's ownership couldn't find a way to squeeze a few more million sent Harden's way out of what will be a fifth consecutive season of raging sellouts at a very profitable new arena, with a third consecutive deep trip into the playoffs. OKC's tax bill would be massive, there is no doubt, but that's why you hire great GMs like Presti that know how to find and acquire great talents. Would you prefer he tossed in another couple of lottery stinkeroos in there, OKC ownership?)

Overall, it's a brilliant move. We're not expecting great things from the low level-lottery pick the Thunder will take in from Toronto, but the Thunder found a way to stay nearly as competitive while attempting to grab some needed depth along the way. And though the expiring contract market is often overvalued, they won't have Martin's eight-figure salary to worry about come July.

Don't pen Kevin Martin in, as great as he can be, as having the same impact as Harden. We're aware of the True Shooting percentages, and Martin's newfound ability to play against lesser defenders off the bench. He, even with Lamb, isn't quite at Harden's level.

The gulf isn't too great, though, and the Thunder should continue to be thought of as in the championship picture. Still, even if this is a significant win for Presti, it comes at a cost.

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