Don’t let your big market bros in New York and Los Angles fool you, Oklahoma City’s visit to Miami on Christmas day is the NBA’s true marquee game on its unofficial season-opening slate. The rematch of the two teams that participated in the 2012 NBA Finals will also serve as an introduction to a whole country’s worth of fair weather NBA fans who have yet to lay eyes on a Thunder team working without All-Star and gold medal Olympian James Harden.
How exactly are those small market Thunder going to fare, they’ll wonder, after having to give up on a superstar in Harden? Those returning fans will then have to be told, as has been the case for years with a lot of us NBA dorks, about the fantastic work of one Kevin Martin. Not only is he Harden’s ostensible replacement, but he’s just about approximating his production from James’ All-Star season of 2011-12.
And the Thunder, a team that has improved offensively from last season to this, is better than ever as a result.
Of course, this all can’t be placed at the feet of Martin, a player working in his prime in a career that has been continually underrated. Most of his teammates are, scarily, still years away from their respective primes; so a year-older Thunder team can’t help but improve from season to season. We’re hoping the same can be said for Scott Brooks, a few years into his first head coaching gig – he hasn’t exactly shut down the Kendrick Perkins experiment (KP is averaging just about as minutes this year as he did last season, with only a small dip in December as compared with November), but his work at developing movement has to be applauded.
Martin his bringing the heat. The lithe guard averages 19.1 points per 36 minutes of play, comparable to Harden’s 19.3 mark from last season, and his 45.8 three-point percentage dwarfs Harden’s 2011-12 hit of 39 percent. Harden got to the line more, and can be trusted to run as a point guard in the pinch; but Martin’s done remarkable work without the benefit of a training camp to help acclimate his unique game.
A game that, to no fault of Martin’s, requires precise timing and flexible parts to work off of. Kevin needs screens, and he needs teammates that can hit him at the exact moment he peels off those screens. In a pick and roll league, it’s likely that Harden’s ball dominance in that realm made him more of an effective scorer, but it’s hard to tell the difference at this point given the same set of teammates. Especially with fewer than two months spent with those teammates, considering the trade between Oklahoma City and Houston happened after training camp and the exhibition season.
James Harden presumably after nailing a trey (Getty Images)This isn’t to discount Harden, the player. Freed from the shackles of working as a third-tier star in OKC’s system, he’s lifted his per game points average almost nine points and his per-36 averages 4.6 points per contest. His overall efficiency remains stellar, his work will surely improve once he’s allowed to catch his breath after a whirlwind first two months in Houston, and the guy is just four months removed from turning 23 years of age. He is the superior player to Martin, even now, and six years younger.
Again, though, Oklahoma City’s offense has improved with all of his significant players turning in career years, and Martin’s capable re-telling of The James Harden Story. The team has the best offense in the NBA, an improved defense, and is on pace for a 67-win season after a lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign that featured a 59-win winning percentage.
Because we like raining all over things and ruining a lovely and snowy Christmas, The Kevin Martin Story can’t be told without bringing up his impending free agency.
The Thunder traded Harden because they couldn’t talk him down from asking for a maximum contract, and turned their deal into a tidy win-win for the asset-heavy Houston Rockets and already-potent Oklahoma City Thunder. A youngster in Jeremy Lamb, a potential lottery pick from Toronto down the road, and an in-prime scorer in Martin to plug in right away.
Martin’s a free agent in July, though, and he’s due his next big contract even at the age of 30. Kevin won’t command James Harden money, but even a deal that averages eight figures (one that starts at $9 million, a $3.6 million pay cut from what Martin is currently making) will toss the Thunder well over the luxury tax line next season, and that’s without signing that potential lottery pick to what could be a high-end rookie scale contract. This is the honeymoon. July, even coming off of a triumphant NBA Finals win, won’t be. The Thunder made a brilliant move with their James Harden deal, securing impressive assets and not skipping a beat with Martin. They didn’t make the piper go away, they just have to pay him in July instead.
Until then, though, Martin is a gem. And these Thunder, even after a deal that shook up two franchises and the whole of the NBA, are playing their tails off.