In the wake of yet another disappointing home loss to the Miami Heat, Thunder fans pointed fingers variously at Kendrick Perkins and coach Scott Brooks. Others, more accurately, blamed LeBron James. With the championship chip no longer on his shoulder, LeBron is hitting a career high mark in terms of performance, and Miami is reaping the benefits. Several commentators and writers have already pegged the Heat as the most dominant team in the league. With all of this compounding Oklahoma City’s sixth straight loss to Miami last Thursday, there is no doubt the Heat are in the Thunder’s head.
However, Perkins and Brooks aren’t the only suspects being sussed out by OKC fans. A familiar chorus is beginning to refrain -- the Thunder sure are missing James Harden right about now. Similar sentiments of inadequacy without Harden in were raised when the Thunder lost to the Heat last Christmas.
The day the Beard was traded to the Rockets was the same day the Sooners were upset at home by Kansas State -- a dark day for Oklahoma athletics. Both events made waves that reverberated the rest of their respective seasons. Most forgot about the loss of Harden when Kevin Martin proved himself to be a roughly equivalent performer – currently standing at 15 points per game versus the 16.8 Harden had at the end of the 2012 season. Yet what is immeasurable in statistics is the chemistry which composed the Harden-Durant-Westbrook trio.
The Rockets have allowed James Harden to blossom. Now in a position which allows him more leadership, Harden has risen to fifth in the league in scoring. The consequence for the Thunder being a Harden-sized hole left in their line-up. Coupled with the irregularity of Westbrook, the Thunder are not playing at the same level they were this time last season. With the complete dominance of James’s Heat, OKC’s only options remaining are to either overcome their mental block or make a trade before the February 21 deadline. One is an educated gamble, another is essential.
It is unclear what kind trade OKC could make to improve their playoff chances. The deadline is closing in quickly and if the Thunder is planning on making any sort of trade, they are keeping it well under wraps.
The Thunder missing Harden does not by any means rule them out of the championship running. Oklahoma City’s biggest obstacle is not a lack of beard, but an intimidation complex with LeBron James. Whether or not they gelled better with Harden on the roster is debatable and only known to the players themselves. One thing is for sure, for those Thunder fans missing the Beard, it must have been soul-affirming to see Harden schmoozing with Westbrook and Durant on the sideline at Saturday night’s All-Star dunk contest.