Column: Thunder should have kept Harden

    The Oklahoma City Thunder made a terrible mistake when they decided to trade James Harden to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and two first-round picks, including a guaranteed 2013 lottery pick via Toronto.Harden, who was OKC’s sixth man and third scoring option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, was also arguably their best playmaker, and trading him takes the Thunder down a level from contenders to fringe contenders.

    OKC traded him because they didn’t have enough salary cap space to sign him to a max contract after giving one to Serge Ibaka. It’s a disappointment to see the Thunder would rather trade Harden than use their amnesty provision on Kendrick Perkins to free up money to offer Harden.

    Kevin Martin, a serviceable albeit one-dimension shooting guard, is nowhere near as valuable as Harden is, who provided stability for the Thunder and hid their weakness at point guard. Harden, an efficient shooter who consistently makes good decisions and distributes the ball well, made the Thunder a dynamic team and provided a spark off their bench.

    Now that he’s gone, Westbrook will have the ball even more, and that’s bad news for OKC.

    Though Westbrook has raw talent and is an athletic freak, he doesn’t know how to use his skills to excel at the point guard position. He shoots too much and that is a lingering problem because Kevin Durant is the team’s best scorer — not Westbrook. Durant is the player who should have the ball in his hands during clutch situations.

    Harden’s departure will surely hit the team hard as he was another go-to at the end of games.

    Not to downplay Martin — he’s an offensive machine able to spot-up and drain threes all day, but his weaknesses, mainly his poor perimeter defense and lack of playmaking skills, don’t make him a very good replacement for Harden.

    OKC, coming fresh of a finals loss to the Heat, had built chemistry through the years but will now have to rebuild their identity if they still want to contend this year. Durant and Westbrook have to use more energy to win the amount of games they won last year and Westbrook’s inability become a legit point guard will hinder the team’s ability to do this.

    Harden has already made an impact for the Rockets scoring 106 points in the first three games this season. His performance has improved Jeremy Lin’s play on the court making it easier for him to contribute offensively. Meanwhile, the Thunder have lost two of their first three games including a last-second loss to their rivals, the San Antonio Spurs. Westbrook couldn’t defend Tony Parker in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter, and gave up a game winning shot to him in the final possession of the game and had six turnovers on the night.

    Durant has to become a better player by being more aggressive on the court and Westbrook needs to establish himself as a pass-first point guard with Harden gone. Harden’s stellar play was the reason the Thunder were able to defeat the Lakers and Spurs. It is important to note, though, that he failed to show up in the finals against the Miami Heat as he averaged 12.4 points on 35 percent shooting throughout the series.

    This trade not only changed the balance of power in the Western Conference for the foreseeable future, it has made the top spot in the Western Conference a wide-open competition between the Lakers, Spurs and Thunder. OKC had an edge before the season began, but since, it’s been erased, they will have to earn that advantage back.