For the first time since the trade that shocked the NBA world, James Harden will take on his former team in Oklahoma City. Were the Thunder right to send him to Houston? Have the Rockets' offseason moves made them a contender in the West? Which team is headed for a brighter future? Our 5-on-5 panel breaks it all down ahead of Wednesday night's highly anticipated showdown.
1. Fact or Fiction: Trading Harden was the right move.
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Fact. The illogical restraints of the collective bargaining agreement put a team like the Thunder in a predicament. If they want to pay market value for all the stars they draft and nurture, they have to pay through the nose in luxury taxes. Should ownership absorb that expense for the sake of keeping a team together? I can't say because it's not my money.
Danny Chau, Hardwood Paroxysm: Fact. Harden's contributions to the Thunder's success were immense, but in the immediate aftermath of Jeff Green's departure, other key players have stepped up their game in a big way. Serge Ibaka is scoring at a career clip, and Kevin Martin has filled the role of freakishly efficient 2-guard. It's different without Harden, but things are still looking good moving forward.
Beckley Mason, ESPN.com: Fiction. I still believe Harden was the second-best player on last season's Thunder team.
Michael Pina, Red94: Fiction. In a basketball utopia where money doesn't matter and salary-cap restrictions are incapable of spoiling a blossoming dynasty, the Thunder would never have moved Harden. He was arguably their second-best player and a defining linchpin of their system. Martin has admirably picked up the scoring void, but with Harden gone, the overall weight of Oklahoma City's offense is hanging heavier on Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. As a result, both have seen their scoring numbers go down. Dealing Harden brought a soaring Thunder team back to the pack.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Fact. It was the right move, yes. That doesn't mean I liked it. With the way the Thunder operate and their core value of approaching everything with long-term sustainable success in mind, it really shouldn't have been that surprising that they traded Harden to maximize the return and maintain roster flexibility. But still, after making a Finals run and coming so very close last season, it's a shame we'll never find out if that Thunder core was good enough to win it all.
2. Fact or Fiction: The Thunder are the favorites in the West.
Arnovitz: Fact. For all the drama surrounding the Harden deal and the questions about whether Martin could fill the role of offensive catalyst off the bench, the Thunder are a half-game out of first in the conference despite not playing their best ball. When things really start to click, they're bound to rip off a 15 out of 17 stretch.
Chau: Fact. The Grizzlies have impressed with their difficult early-season schedule, but I don't feel comfortable knocking off the incumbent yet. The distribution of wealth in OKC looks healthier this season. Durant's and Westbrook's usage percentages have dipped slightly as others, like Ibaka's, have risen. The post-Harden restructuring is ongoing, but the early signs are promising.
Mason: Fact. The Thunder are essentially still bumping into one another all over the court, but they are 11-4 and have the potential to make a move or two as the season goes on.
Pina: Fiction. Right now -- and likely until May -- the Western Conference's top spot is a wide-open game of musical chairs, with Memphis, San Antonio and both Los Angeles teams all involved in a competitive, and seriously entertaining, scrum.
Young: Fiction. The Thunder have been solid in the early going but not spectacular. They really have only one marquee win, and that was over a Clippers team that is slipping. As it stands, the Thunder are certainly a top-three team in the West, but the rising Grizzlies and the consistent Spurs have made a better early-season case to be the favorite.
3. Westbrook or Harden: Who would you rather have?
Arnovitz: Harden. Though he lacks Westbrook's raw explosiveness and long frame, Harden is a more efficient scorer and a better distributor. By virtue of his body and his talent, Westbrook should theoretically be the better defender -- and probably is -- but it's not decisive.
Chau: Westbrook. Give me the chaos. Give me the unhinged, hazardous style of a player with the ability to disorient everything in his path. Yes, Westbrook is his own worst enemy, and it will always be his fault when things go awry. But the self-inflicted wounds don't seem so bad once you look at everything else caught in the blast radius.
Mason: Harden. Westbrook is great, but Harden's pick-and-roll game and his ability to make quick passing and scoring reads from that basic set make him the more valuable offensive player. Since neither plays defense worth talking about, that's what matters most.
Pina: Harden. He flourishes in the pick-and-roll as both a distributor and finisher, turns human beings into holograms whenever he drives to the basket and knocks down shots from anywhere on the court. My admiration is unwavering for Westbrook and the intensity he brings to the court each and every night, but due to a superior knowledge regarding the decisions that best suit both him and his team, Harden is the preferable choice.
Young: Westbrook. There's no doubt that Harden is a special talent, but Westbrook is a brilliant basketball player who hasn't really revealed his true ceiling yet. He is currently putting up career-best assists with career-low turnovers while still maintaining his 20-points-per-game clip. He's an All-Star who still has a lot of room to improve. Don't forget: He's only 24.
4. Fact or Fiction: The Rockets are a playoff team.
Arnovitz: Fact-ish, but it's no lock. Let's pencil in Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Memphis, the Lakers, Clippers and Denver. That leaves a couple of slots for Minnesota, Dallas, Utah, Houston and Golden State (not sold on Phoenix). The Rockets can compete with that group, especially if they can maintain a league-average defense.
Chau: Fiction, but it's close. Barring an intervention brought on by a certain Mayan prophecy, the West seems locked in with its playoff heavy hitters, leaving only the final few spots up for grabs. It's hard to imagine the Rockets, with an average age of 24 and an extremely inexperienced bench, outplaying the other equally deserving wild cards.
Mason: Fact. The Rockets will get better as the season goes on, especially once they leverage all those tantalizing and talented frontcourt players -- who can't get on the floor due to Houston's loaded rotation -- in a deal for another big-time player.
Pina: Fact. Houston spent the past few seasons out of the playoffs as a middling organization in search of a savior. In Harden, they found him. Along with a rapidly improving Chandler Parsons, arguably the best defensive center in basketball, and a point guard who grows more comfortable by the day, an 8-seed could be on the horizon.
Young: Fiction. Harden is a better player than Martin, but are the Rockets really that much better this season than they were last season? Unless Harden plays well, the Rockets have a hard time winning. That kind of burden is something that's tough to deal with throughout a season.
5. Rockets or Thunder: Better in three years?
Arnovitz: Thunder. But don't sleep on the possibility that Houston will make a hard run at another impact player up front. The Rockets are clearly big-game hunters, but it will take an enormous kill to compete with the Thunder and Durant. Talents like him come along only once or twice a decade.
Chau: Thunder. There will surely be more roster changes in Houston three years from now, but it's still safe to say the Thunder will be the better team. The combined might of the Thunder's core three years from now should overshadow the Rockets' developments if we are to believe in the power of OKC's youth and exponential growth.
Mason: Thunder. Don't think this one is close, because Durant is just entering that phase LeBron James hit a couple years ago when he started to round out his already incredible game. The more interesting question might be "Hasheem Thabeet or Kendrick Perkins: Better in three years?"
Pina: Thunder. The Rockets will head into this summer with cap space and a 23-year-old superstar, and they could realistically contend for a title as soon as next season. But three years from now, Durant and Westbrook will be 27 years old, and Ibaka will be 26. All three will still (probably) be with the Thunder. Peering three years down the road, that's as good a reason as any to pick this team over everybody else.
Young: Thunder. Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka or Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik? Hmm, whom would you pick? Unless Rockets GM Daryl Morey has another blockbuster up his sleeve, it's really a no-brainer.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Beckley Mason contributes to ESPN.com. Danny Chau, Michael Pina and Royce Young are part of the TrueHoop Network.
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