The NBA world was rocked on Saturday night when the Oklahoma City Thunder traded away James Harden to the Houston Rockets. There is no doubt the deal made the Thunder a less dangerous team this season, but what does the trade mean from the Nuggets perspective?
The Thunder acquired two key components in Kevin Martin and rookie Jeremy Lamb. Martin will attempt to fill Harden’s role in the short term while the Thunder are hoping that Lamb can be a key contributor over the long term. The primary issue for the Thunder is Martin and Harden are completely different players. Harden is a killer coming off a ball screens and attacking the rim. Martin is a player who runs off of a lot of screens away from the ball and then relies on pump fakes and hesitation dribbles to get open shots.
Harden fit in so well with the Thunder because he was able to do everything from hang out on the weak side to leading the offense. Harden could carry the team offensively without dominating the ball or requiring the rest of his teammates to set him up with a series of off the ball screens. In addition do not forget that Harden was the crunch time defender against Kobe Bryant and played some significant minutes against LeBron James.
Martin is a scorer and only a scorer. He does not set teammates up or do the little things like set screens or crash the boards. I assume that Martin will fill the role of providing offense off the bench as Harden did. The question is will the Thunder overhaul their offense and implement some Martin friendly sets and if they do, how effective will they be? Keep in mind Martin is in the final year of his pricy contract. Will the Thunder be interested in changing what they do for a one year rental? Martin could turn into the highest paid offside three point sniper in the NBA although he does have a fantastic ability to move without the ball and he is very adept at getting to the free throw line. Those are qualities that most coaches will be successful in taking advantage of.
The bad news for Denver is Martin has traditionally been a difficult cover for them while Harden has not created nearly as many problems. Even if the Thunder do not install sets that run Martin through a series of screens as Sacramento and Houston have, he will still cause problems with his deadly three point shooting. With the amount of attention that Durant and Westbrook draw, Martin will be open and waiting for kick out and skip passes on the off side. We are all well aware of Denver’s struggles to rotate and defend the perimeter. Because of those shortcomings Martin may continue to give the Nuggets fits even if he is simply spotting up. If the Thunder are able to integrate Martin into the offense in a way that allows him to freelance and play to his strengths the Nuggets will really struggle to slow them down.
On the flip side, Martin’s defensive deficiencies have been well documented. Martin will struggle to defend nearly any Nugget he is likely to be assigned to. The only player the Thunder could conceivably match him up against without giving up as much as they gain would be Corey Bewer, although Brewer has shown a better offensive game in the preseason.
Looking forward Lamb is the player that fits the Thunder’s philosophy both stylistically and financially. How he develops will determine if the Thunder truly remain co-favorites with the Heat year after year. Plus, with Martin possessing an expiring contract and the ability to score, it will be interesting to see if the Thunder decide to flip his contract for a player who is a better long term fit.
All in all, swapping Harden for Martin certainly makes it less likely the Thunder will dethrone the Miami, but it does not necessarily make things easier for the Nuggets. I have commented previously that the Nuggets have been built to combat the Thunder with numerous wing defenders, an athletic four and a triumvirate of lanky centers. The fact is the Thunder just added a player whose style of play has caused Denver great consternation in the past to place alongside two other players who have had a great deal of success against Denver in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It is true Scott Brooks has not been given high marks for his offensive philosophy; however, if Brooks can successfully integrated Martin into the Thunder’s game, it will probably make the Thunder even more difficult for the Nuggets to defeat than they were with Harden.
The primary benefit for Denver could be Oklahoma City will likely win fewer games now than they would have with Harden. Should the Nuggets fulfill their promise, they have a better chance of winning the Northwest Division now than they did on Saturday afternoon.