In the trade that shocked the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder pulled the plug on its young core and traded James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round draft picks (Dallas and Toronto) and a second-round pick (Charlotte).
There’s plenty of analysis of the trade and its short-term and long-term ramifications for both the Thunder and Rockets elsewhere on the web, but let’s get to the most important part: How does this affect the Clippers?
At first glance, this is a major win for the red, white and blue. The Clippers’ three main competitors for the Western conference crown are the Thunder, Lakers and Spurs, and arguably the best of the bunch just traded away their third-best player for two guys who are not as skilled and likely won’t have anywhere near the same impact.
Not only does this open up a potential spot in the top-3 seed-wise for the Clippers, but it means that if they face the Thunder in the playoffs, L.A. will have that much of a better shot at dethroning the reigning West champs.
Surprisingly, the Clippers matched up well against the Thunder last season, winning the season series 3-1. It was closer than it looked though, as the Clippers won the season series by a mere 6 points (the Clippers had two double-digit victories at Staples and eked out a close game on the road; the Thunder had one blowout at Chesapeake Energy Arena).
I say “surprisingly” because last year’s Thunder squad, perhaps more than any other team in the league, should have given the Clippers fits with their offensive potency.
Last year’s perimeter defense consisted of Caron Butler, Mo Williams, Randy Foye and Nick Young – not the first four guys you associate with “defensive stopper.” Compound that with the The Thunder’s trio of Durant, Harden and Westbrook, and you have a recipe for disaster.
(Side note: Though Eric Bledsoe played in all four games, he only averaged 10.8 MPG. He wasn’t very effective defensively either, posting a 106.5 defensive rating, his eighth-worst against any team last season.)
But that wasn’t the case last season. Durant, Harden and Westbrook didn’t really kill the Clippers — except for the first game, in which Durant and Westbrook combined for 77 points and the Thunder still lost. In fact, they all were either dead even or worse than their season averages, per NBA.com’s stats database. One player in particular just couldn’t get going against the Clips.
Who struggled the most against the Clippers?
James Edward Harden, Jr.
Harden was terrible, by his standards, against the Clippers last season.
He averaged 11.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG and 3.8 APG on an atrocious 36.1 percent shooting (he shot 49.6 percent for the season). He’s an excellent free-throw shooter (84.6 percent), but even that dropped to a mediocre 73.3 percent against L.A. His only stat that stayed relatively the same was his 3-point shooting, which saw a 0.1 percent increase – yes, that minimal – to 39.1 percent.
Why did Harden struggle?
The Clippers did an impressive job of protecting the rim on his drives and pick-and-roll plays. According to video logs on NBA.com, only twice did Harden get uncontested attempts at the basket. Otherwise the Clippers built a wall at the rim. On three separate occasions, Butler, DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe each blocked one of Harden’s lay-up attempts.
Even more importantly, the Clippers turned him into a spot-up 3-point shooter. Granted, he made them at his season clip, but the increase – from 4.7 attempts on average to 5.8 against the Clippers – meant that he wasn’t getting into the lane and wreaking havoc on the Clippers’ suspect interior defense. This explains his drop in free throw attempts, from 6.0 during the regular season to 3.8 against L.A.
When it comes down to it, though, he just didn’t shoot the ball well. Some of Harden’s 3-point looks were wide-open, yet he still clanked them. It’s a bit bizarre. Harden only scored fewer points against four teams last year – the Celtics, Bulls, Hawks and Pacers – all of whom were top-10 defensive squads (the Clippers ranked 18th).
What this means
It’d be an anomaly if it was one or two games, but Harden struggled against the Clippers in practically all four games. The Clippers figured out a way to limit his production and turn him into a jump shooter and the results prove it: his offensive output was 7 points, 10 points, 17 points and 12 points for the series.
His offensive rating decreased from 112.2 to 107.4 and his defensive rating plummeted from 102.5 to 109. Harden had a 9.1 +/- rating throughout the season, but that turned into a poor -2.2 +/- rating against the Clips (his fourth-worse rating of the season). Losing three out of four times doesn’t help, but Harden didn’t have the off-the-bench impact that’s become his staple.
How did Kevin Martin fare against the Clippers?
Believe it or not, the guy who’s theoretically replacing Harden, Kevin Martin, also struggled against the Clippers, but not to the degree Harden did. A player like Martin, though not particularly athletic or explosive, still gives the Clippers trouble, because he’s always moving off the ball, gets to the charity stripe with ease (normally) and is a dead-eye shooter.
Against the Clippers, Martin averaged 19.5 PPG, 2.0 RPG and 5.0 APG on 35.5 percent shooting and 30 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The only reason Martin scored so much, despite shooting so putrid, was because he got to the line 7 times per game and made 100 percent of his free throws.
That wouldn’t be an important stat, if it weren’t for the fact that Martin struggled to get to the line last year (4.5 FTA per game — the third-lowest of his career; his two lowest outputs were his first two seasons in the NBA). Last season, Martin battled injuries, only playing 40 out of the 66 games. However, his shooting percentages and stats overall were much in line with his career and recent averages; only his free throw attempts saw a significant decline.
Moreover, the Clippers used similar defensive schemes against Martin as they did against Harden. They kept him out of the paint, though he’s not necessarily known for his slashing and penetration, and forced him to take contested isolation and pull-up jumpers — which, in this case, he rarely converted on. When Martin did manage to get open, usually off of curl cuts or out working the Clipper defender, he often made the jumper or drew a foul.
He’s a different type of weapon than Harden, but one that, if used effectively by Scott Brooks, can give the Clippers some difficulties. He’ll almost definitely be guarded by a more athletic defender, like Bledsoe or Barnes, who’ll also have their hands full with Durant and Westbrook.
The Thunder is still a viable contender and one of the best teams in the Western conference. The Clippers seemingly have their number, as they’re 5-3 against them the past two seasons, splitting the series 2-2 in 2010-11.
The Clippers figured out the formula to stop the Thunder – allow the Thunder’s key guys to get “theirs” and stop everyone else. Durant was the only Thunder player to score in double figures all four games; Harden, Westbrook and Ibaka each had three such games, but they did so inefficiently. Everyone else was a non-factor for OKC.
In a vacuum, Harden is a better player than Martin. He’s more efficient — 21.13 PER compared to Martin’s 16.60 PER — and a better shooter, ball handler, playmaker and defender (For some reason Harden’s getting an unfair rap as a sub par defender; he more than held his own defensively in the 2012 playoffs. Martin on the other hand, is an atrocious defender.).
Their games aren’t that similar, either. Harden’s primarily a pick-and-roll ball handler and creator — toying with his defender like a yo-yo and mastering the perfect angle to attack — who can also spot up. Martin tends to isolate more, while also preferring to move off the ball to create space for his awkward-looking jumper via screens, cuts and pop outs.
However, Martin brings an intricate set of skills to the table for the Thunder – mainly impeccable off-the-ball movement and midrange shooting – that should allow him to thrive one way or another. The Clippers shouldn’t fear him, as they do Durant and Westbrook (and did Harden to a degree), but they’ll have to carry out a similar game plan to prevent him from converting on the barrage of open jumpers OKC’s offense will create for him. In more than a few ways, Martin is the more dangerous threat against the Clippers.
That’s not to say it’s solely Martin’s job to replace Harden. It’s a collective effort. Brooks will use Eric Maynor off the ball as a scorer for the second-unit at times, and even Westbrook will get a crack at some action on the wing. It’s uncertain if the Thunder will keep Sefolosha as the starting 2-guard, but for now we’ll assume that’s how OKC will enter the season. Martin’s on an expiring deal, so he’s not part of OKC’s long-term future, unless he vividly exceeds expectations.
The most important part of the trade for OKC, besides Toronto’s 2013 first round pick (projected in the 10-12 range by John Hollinger), is Lamb. He’s an intriguing prospect, though he’s already behind Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Martin, Maynor and Reggie Jackson on the depth chart. Thunder GM Sam Presti labeled him a “work in progress.” There’s no telling what type of player he’ll develop into, but chances are, he’ll at least be a solid rotation piece.
The trade clearly helps the Clippers’ chances against OKC in the short-term, but the long-term effect is unknown. We don’t know how productive Lamb will turn out, what the Thunder will do with the cap space in the next two summers, and how those draft picks will influence the Thunder’s course. All of these factors will decide how future Clipper and Thunder battles play out.
While Harden’s departure may help the Clippers in the standings, as they now have the potential to leapfrog the Thunder and earn a higher playoff seed, it might not have the same effect on the court when these two teams match up.
Stats from NBA.com were used in this post.