Harden Trade Bad For NBA

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s decision to trade James Harden to the Houston Rockets has left a bad taste in my mouth.

Late last night — during the middle of a tough loss by the Oklahoma Sooners that was distracting most of the state — the Thunder traded Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to Houston in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick that belonged to Charlotte.

One of the draft picks is Toronto’s from the Kyle Lowry deal and the other comes courtesy of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Jordan Hill deal last season.

Some fans will debate whether it was worth it for Harden to fight for the extra $5.5 million he will get from Houston, but I don’t think fans would be willing to leave money on the table when they negotiate their next contract.

On top of that, Oklahoma City was unable to offer Harden the fifth-year that Houston can because of the new collective bargaining agreement. According to that document, teams can only sign one player to a five-year deal, the rest of the roster can only accept a contract for a maximum of four years.

While it may seem blasphemous to say right now, there’s a strong possibility that Martin will provide more reliable outside shooting than Harden provided and that Lamb could develop into a great compliment to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. The problem with playing that “what if” game is the fact Harden was already a great compliment to their core group of players and he was their best three-point shooter last season.

Oklahoma City might also win the “lottery” with one of the two draft picks they secured in this trade. If they can get a top-five pick in the draft next June then Sam Presti will once again look like a genius.

So while there is hope for how this deal could play out in the future, what really stings is the fact the Thunder made a business decision instead of a personnel one when they were poised to start a season where they challenged for an NBA Championship.

When Oklahoma City dealt Jeff Green to Boston for Kendrick Perkins a couple seasons back it stunned the fans and the players left on their roster. However, that was clearly a move made to give a young roster more experience and to toughen up their bigs. But trading Harden to Houston? That amounts to the Oklahoma City not having the kind of money needed to pay him $five million over five seasons due to worries about luxury tax payments. That’s a scary message for a small-market team to be sending to its players and fans.

What frustrates fans of the team is that Oklahoma City could have played out this season without any real penalty. Before this trade went down they were almost guaranteed a spot in the Western Conference Finals and many pundits had them playing in the NBA Finals.

Now? They still have a chance, but the odds aren’t nearly as good.

If Oklahoma City rode out this season they could have at least matched any offer that Harden received next summer and then traded him. So, they would have still gotten some pieces back and they would have been able to play out this season competing for an NBA Championship.

Last season the NBA played 66 games so that the league would have a competitive playing field. The idea was that bigger markets like Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago and Miami would no longer be able to dictate where the star players went.

So much for that utopian idea.

Heading into this season, Los Angeles alone is home to Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Blake Griffen.

Meanwhile, Miami boasts heir own big three and Boston has three future Hall-of-Famers in Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

It’s a shame the rich continue to get richer while small-market teams will continue to struggle to compete.

Even worse, it stinks that Oklahoma City cashed in their chips before even giving this season a chance to unfold.

Game 4 Won’t Silence Westbrook’s Critics

As all the cool kids like to say nowadays, haters gonna’ hate.

It seems that during the NBA Finals it became fashionable to pick on Russell Westbrook. Not just for his horrible fashion choices, but because he was shooting more in the NBA Finals that he did during the regular season.

Hopefully Westbrook’s play in Game 4 of the NBA Finals will silence his critics and all the haters.

Westbrook started the game 3-3 from the field and scored six of Oklahoma City’s first 13 points of the game while dishing out an assist. His strong play helped the Thunder roll to a 13-3 lead and forced Miami to call a timeout to stop the bleeding.

Yes, Westbrook got a little shot happy midway through the first quarter, but for the most part he was the player who gave Oklahoma City a chance to secure a much-needed win for Oklahoma City in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

One of the things that swung this game in favor of Oklahoma City early in the game was Miami’s inability to rotate or switch when a pick was set for Westbrook. Throughout the first quarter Westbrook was able to burst by a stunned Miami defender who had been blindsided by a pick and shoot uncontested 17-footers that easily found the bottom of the net.

Westbrook set up shop at the elbow and made jumper after jumper over the course of the game. Then, when Miami’s defense started to collapse on him, he used his speed to get to the rim for easy buckets.

Miami fought back from some early adversity and rallied from a 17 point deficit in the second quarter. How did OKC stop the rally? Westbrook fed Durant for a bucket and on the next possession he fed Harden for a big three while Dwyane Wade was crumpled on the court.

Westbrook then hit a big jumper near the two minute mark of the second quarter to push OKC’s lead to 45-42. He had 16 points at that points while going an efficient 8-14 from the field.

“Russell (Westbrook) is one of the best point guards in the NBA,” Scott Brooks raved to ABC after the first quarter. “He attacks the basket. He’s a winner. He plays the right way and I’m proud of the way he started this game.”

Just when Miami appeared to be running away with the game in the fourth quarter, Westbrook scored 13 straight points for Oklahoma City and tie the game at 90 with six minutes remaining.

Westbrook played all 12 minutes in the fourth quarter while scoring 17 points. The best part is he went 7-9 from the field during the final quarter.

Throughout the game it seemed as if whenever Oklahoma City was making positive things happen it was Westbrook who had his hand in his teams strong play.

All this to finish with a game-high 43 points.

Sure, there’s a learning curve that Westbrook is currently going through, but he’s one heck of a young point guard who is just learning how to play the position. Fans just need to be patient through the growing pains he is sure to go through at times.

“It’s not deserving at all because without him we wouldn’t be here at this point, and people don’t recognize that,” Durant explained to the media this weekend when he was asked about the criticism being directed at Westbrook. “Everybody thinks he should be a traditional point guard like a Stockton or a Mo Cheeks. There’s a lot of people that cannot be like Russ, either.”

Westbrook’s teammates fully support him so it’s not like he’s going to change the way he plays. Nor should he.

Granted, Westbrook had his share of mental mistakes in Game 4 and he had nearly twice as many field goal attempts as Durant, but the positives far outweighed the negatives.

Hopefully his strong play in Game 4 will force fans to stop drinking the Haterade when it comes to assessing Westbrook and how he plays.

Podcast: Conference Finals Rundown

Mark and McNeill chatted about Boston struggling to close out games against Miami, Chris Bosh’s impact on Miami, the adjustments Scott Brooks made in Game 3, and how the Spurs can regroup.

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Here’s the link to download the MP3.

Fisher’s Biggest Impact Not In A Box Score

Leadership, heart and courage are just a few words used to describe Derek Fisher by his Oklahoma City Thunder teammates, however, experience is what they claim to be the most important.

“He’s a great leader by example and with his voice,” Royal Ivey said. “He’s very calm and his demeanor is out of this world. That helps. He brings this kind of calmness to the team.”

Ivey went on to explain that Fisher’s knowledge on how to connect with every player in the locker room has been key in his ability to click with the team on such short notice.

Fisher joined the Thunder on Mar. 21 after playing and starting 43 games with the Los Angeles Lakers, the franchise for which he earned five NBA championships. The Lakers traded Fisher to the Houston Rockets. Houston bought out his contract and a few days later, he signed with Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City was in need of a backup point guard due to Eric Maynor’s ACL injury suffered in January. Rookie Reggie Jackson filled in for Maynor, but his lack of experience forced the Thunder’s hand in signing Fisher.

“Being a veteran in this league and being at the pinnacle of winning championships really says a lot,” Ivey said. “Getting his wisdom, experience and competitiveness when he came on board was a plus.”

Fisher’s role took a dramatic change when he signed with Oklahoma City. For much of his career, he had been the starting point guard for the NBA’s  premier franchise. When he signed with the Thunder, he became the backup for the league’s youngest and arguably most talented team. He’s had success working with players like Westbrook, Ivey Kevin Durant and James Harden and has helped shine a light on winning in the Thunder locker room.

“Derek is a natural born leader,” Westbrook said. “He knows what it takes to win. He understands the things that you need to do to get better. He communicates to us what it takes to get to the next level and it’s really helped me, Kevin and James a lot.”

The practice court is no different for Fisher. His teammates claim that he still communicates like the starting point guard and provides advice when need be. In a short period of time, he’s become a valuable extension of head coach Scott Brooks.

“He does a great job of staying on guys,” Ivey said. “As a player and as a coach he’s a great leader. He’s a great teacher. He sees things that maybe Russell (Westbrook) or I don’t see and he does a great job of walking through and showing us. He’s just a great communicator.”

Fisher’s experience has shown so far in the playoffs. He’s averaging six points per game and is shooting over 53% from beyond the three-point line. He is also playing good defense at age 37. In the Lakers series he was asked to guard Kobe Bryant and had success on numerous possessions.

Going into their Western Conference Finals matchup with the San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder will look to Fisher for strong execution on both the offensive and defensive end in a limited amount of minutes.

Fisher doesn’t get the same playing time that he got in L.A., but he still contributes.

“What Derek (Fisher) brings to the team can’t be measured,” Brooks said. “His ability to connect in the locker room in such a short period of time has been huge for our young guys like Kevin, Russell and James. You can’t find that on a box score.”

Thunder Capitalize On Gift-Wrapped Victory

With 2:08 left on the clock, Game 2 between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers was all but over.

That is until Kobe Bryant giftwrapped the game and handed it to the Thunder.

The Lakers owned a 75-68 lead and the Thunder were in the midst of one of the most miserable halves of their season. Kevin Durant wasn’t shooting enough, Serge Ibaka shot too much and Kobe started to turn on the Kobe.

It was over and the Thunder had all but handed the Lakers their first win of the series. Then, Bryant turned around and gave Oklahoma City the best thing they could have ever asked for: a chance.

With 1:48 remaining and the game all but sewed up, Bryant looked to pass the ball into the post. Durant, Thunder coach Scott Brook’s defensive secret weapon at the end of games, reached up with every inch of his nine-foot wingspan and plucked his pass straight out of the air, drove to the basket and cut the Lakers’ lead to three.

“He’s (Durant) guarding the best player in basketball,” Brooks said after the game. “It takes a team to stop him (Bryant). There was a moment when I thought Kobe was really starting to feel it and I thought Kevin’s length could bother him.”

“It was a great play,” Bryant said. “He just jumped the passing lane and got a good steal. Other than that, I was just too far away from the basket.”

The Lakers kept the Thunder from scoring after another turnover, but with 1:01 left on the clock, Bryant, so used to the late game drama, missed a fade-away that would have ultimately sealed the deal and sent the Lakers home with a huge win. Instead, Kendrick Perkins grabbed the rebound, Harden drove to the basket and with 56 seconds left, the Thunder was down by one.

Los Angeles still had the lead. With under a minute, they were still in the driver’s seat. All they had to do was milk the clock and get to the basket for a layup or a foul.

Easier said than done, even with Bryant.

Bryant had already helped get Oklahoma City back in the game with his turnover two possessions prior and wasn’t exactly feeling it after missing a fade-away. So, after draining the clock with the lead in hand, what did he do? He launched a three that clanked and landed in the hands of Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook got the ball to Durant and with 18.6 seconds left, the NBA’s leading scorer put the Thunder up by one with a seven-foot floater reminiscent of his game winner against Dallas in Game 1 of the first round.

Los Angeles tried to respond with a flare out to Bryant, but Metta World Peace instead passed to Steve Blake who launched a desperation-three, missed and gave Oklahoma City a 2-0 series advantage.

“I got open,” Bryant said. “I don’t know what Metta (World Peace) saw, but he kicked it to Steve (Blake) and I got in position for the rebound. I couldn’t pull it down.”

The Lakers will now head home disappointed. They can’t be disappointed that they lost two games in one of the loudest arenas in the league, but in the fact that their star player couldn’t lockup the game like he’s so used to doing.

Bryant is one of the game’s greatest players of all time, as professed by Brooks after Game 1 Monday night. However, in the clutch Wednesday, he looked more like an aging veteran than the assassin he has been over 16 years.

Kobe just wasn’t Kobe.

Give all the credit in the world to Oklahoma City. They got the job done. Their superstar (Durant) came up big in the clutch and L.A.’s star didn’t. For 46 minutes it was the Lakers’ game to win, but in the final minutes the Thunder capitalized on costly Laker mistakes and ultimately stole the victory.

“This is what the series is going to be about,” Brooks said after the game. “Each game is going to be a one or two possession game going forward. Each game is going to be physical, but we feel we can win that way.”

Instead of taking the game from the Thunder, Kobe gave it to them. It’s a mistake he has so rarely surrendered over the course of his career, but it could end up being the demise of this year’s Lakers.

It could also be a boost for Oklahoma City, a boost that could lead them to the Western Conference Finals and ultimately an NBA championship.