COMMENTARY | The Los Angeles Lakers are a team built to win the Western Conference as constructed, and the blockbuster trade that sent the reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year James Harden to the Houston Rockets will all but ensure that the Oklahoma City Thunder will be less of a threat to get in their way.
Harden brought a dynamic set of skills and production to a young Thunder team on its way up. They had incredible talent, youth and were in the midst of building championship-caliber continuity within the organization.
In one fell swoop on Saturday, however, much of that was taken away after the Thunder and Harden could not agree on terms of a multi-year contract extension and subsequently parted ways via trade.
They also gave up three-point specialist Daequan Cook, Lazar Hayward and Cole Aldrich. In return, the Thunder got back two quality players in rookie Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin -- a capable scorer and eight-year veteran that should be able to fill some of the void left by Harden.
In fact, it's arguable that Lamb could develop into a good enough player to make the Thunder ultimately better than they were a year ago when they represented the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. But such development will take time and likely won't happen over the course of one season.
It's not back to square one for the Thunder -- they still have Kevin Durant, one of the best players on the planet -- but they're not going to simply pick up where they left off, either. Especially not when they're losing a player like Harden that fit so well in their system.
That's why the Lakers' road to the Western Conference title just got a little bit easier with the departure of Harden. He gave the Lakers, specifically Kobe Bryant, fits on defense. Martin is not as strong of a perimeter defender as Harden, who's of the best in the league in that capacity.
The Thunder's newest acquisition will also have to learn how to play with Russell Westbrook -- which takes some adjusting to because he's Russell Westbrook.
Harden averaged 16.8 points and 3.7 assists in 2011-2012, and he figures to improve on those numbers as he has over the course of his first three seasons. Now it's Houston, not Oklahoma City, that will likely reap the benefits of his most productive years as a player.
The Rockets aren't a threat to the new-look Lakers yet, because by the time Houston is ready to make a deep playoff run, Los Angeles will have been reconstructed. The Lakers are the perfect example of a team with a small window to win as they have aging superstars in Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash who don't have much left to give. Their road to glory just got a lot easier as their greatest rival took a small, yet temporary step backward with the trade.
It's small enough, however, that the Lakers can take full advantage of the short rebuilding phase and pass them by for the time being. Oklahoma City has plenty of time as their core of young players is still young, but it will be a tall order to repeat the recent success they've head in the postseason without one of their big three.
This move has to be pleasing to the Lakers and their fans, because it could be one of the factors that leads them to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010. The Thunder had built something special in the past few seasons, and Harden was a big part of that.
Losing "The Beard" can only be considered a setback for OKC, albeit temporary. But that plays right into the hands of the Lakers and their immediate title hopes.
Michael C. Jones is a Yahoo! Featured Contributor in Sports and covers the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA as a Southern California-based sports journalist, editor, and blogger. You can read him on SB Nation and Examiner.com. He is also the Editor and Founder of Sports Out West.
Comments, rants and everything in between can be directed to him on Twitter @MikeJonesTweets