Kevin Martin is killing it in OKC

When Sam Presti dealt James Harden to Houston in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and picks from Toronto, Dallas and Charlotte many people (including me) assumed the following:

  • The key assets in the trade were Lamb and the picks

And…

  • Oklahoma City was willingly lowering their ceiling this season for a chance to be better in the future

At first glance, these seemed to be fair assumptions. After all, the pick from Toronto, through some savvy negotiating by Houston GM Daryl Morey, is reverse-protected. In other words, it won’t be conferred to Oklahoma City unless the pick falls in the lottery. The pick from Charlotte is likely to be the 31st or 32nd pick in the draft, and because it’s a second-rounder, comes without a guaranteed contract. In other words, the Thunder get a 1st-round value with no risk involved. The Dallas pick is top-20 protected through 2017, but it’s still a first-round pick. And Jeremy Lamb has the potential to be a good two-way swingman, and he impressed in the summer league.

However, the people that made these assumptions overlooked a pretty key piece of information:

Kevin Martin is still pretty damn good.

*     *     *

If we operate under the assumption that Harden was definitely going to be traded if an agreement on an extension could not be reached, trading Harden for Kevin Martin certainly seems to make a lot of sense. Harden and Westbrook are both phenomenal players, but their respective games have a lot of overlap and result in a lot of redundancy, and, as a result, diminishing returns. It’s pretty easy to see that Harden played significantly better without Durant than with Durant, and the same goes for Westbrook. Harden is without a doubt a phenomenal player, but Presti may have balked at maxing out a player in salary when they couldn’t max out his effectiveness on the court.

Also in consideration is that Eric Maynor returned from last season’s knee injury, giving Oklahoma City a ball-handler for their second unit, the role previously filled by Harden. Maynor is by no means a star player, but he’s a young backup point guard with some decent potential going forward.

So if the Thunder were making a checklist for the player they would want to replace James Harden in the short-term, they might look for a player who (a) can be just as effective playing off the ball next to Durant and Westbrook, (b) can provide a scoring punch to hold down the fort with Westbrook and Durant on the bench, and (c) won’t inhibit Maynor’s development by taking the ball out of his hands. With Martin, they got all three of those things.

Martin’s 2012 season likely threw people off the scent. He dealt with a shoulder injury that limited him to just 40 games last season, and was largely out of place in Kevin McHale’s offense, which is built around point guards running a high screen-roll over and over again with OCD-like repetitiveness. That’s not exactly a great fit for a guard whose game is built on curling around screens for catch-and-shoot opportunities.

After being forced to stand in the corner like a first grader in time-out for most of last season, Martin now finds himself in an offense capable of taking advantage of his strengths, although it should be noted that those strengths are a bit different than the ones Harden presented for Oklahoma City.

For instance, Harden was so effective using off-ball screens and on hand-off plays last season that it was almost unfair. I’m not saying that Mark Cuban petitioned the league office in an effort to legislate Harden out of the league on grounds that he was “too good,” but I’m not saying he didn’t, either. Harden was the most efficient scorer in the league in those situations last year, and combined to make 49 of 94 threes on those plays, a ludicrous 52.1%.

Martin can’t quite match those numbers. During his last full season in 2011, Martin shot just 31.4% in those situations, and an even uglier 22% last season. However, Martin has a clear advantage in another aspect of the game – as a catch-and-shoot player. At first glance, the advantage doesn’t jump out at you. Martin shot 41.7% on “spot-up” threes in 2011, 39.3% in 2012, compared to Harden’s 39.9% in 2012 (all play-specific data according to Synergy Sports). However, this data leaves out a big chunk of Martin’s “spot-up” shots, which are catch-and-shoot threes in transition. Understandably, Synergy classifies these as “transition” possessions, not “spot-up” possessions, despite the fact that the mechanics of the play are essentially identical. They’re both catch-and-shoot threes with no dribbling involved. For these plays in 2011 and 2012, Martin combined to shoot 63 of 136, good for 46.3%, compared to just 31.4% (15 of 51) for Harden in 2012. Martin’s success rate seems to be carrying over so far this season; he’s converting a Seussical 63.1% (12 of 19) on catch-and-shoot threes through four games.

Adding Martin to the mix seems to be working. They’ve only played 64 minutes together, but in those minutes, the Durant-Westbrook-Martin trio is 29 points in the black, good for a net of +21.8 points per 48 minutes. Last year, Durant-Westbrook-Harden was +10.7 per 48 minutes.

Are these cases of Small Sample Size Theater? Of course they are. If Martin makes 63% of his catch-and-shoot threes and the trio is 20 points better than opponents per 48 minutes over the course of even 18 games, let alone 80, I’ll drape myself in orange clothing and traipse around South Boston on St. Patrick’s Day singing protestant hymns. But the fact remains that Martin is clearly a superior catch-and-shoot player than Harden, which gives a new wrinkle to Oklahoma City’s offense.

We’re starting to reach a point with basketball statistics where, at least on offense, we have pretty ironclad knowledge of what each player is capable of. The place where we’re still figuring things out is how players influence each other. To put it another way, we’ve pretty much figured out the size and shape of every puzzle piece, but we still haven’t figured out how to put all those pieces together.

With Martin in Oklahoma City, in our admittedly small sample size, the pieces at least appear to fit better. As a part of the second unit, he’s doing some of the stuff that Harden did. His foul rate (.561 FTA/FGA) has bumped back above his disappointing 2012 rate (.333 FTA/FGA), although it’s still below his obscene .650 FTA/FGA during his career-high 2009 season. He’s also adopted parts of the two-man game with Nick Collison that Harden was so dynamic in last season, shooting 54% from the floor with a foul rate close to .700 with Collison on the floor (as opposed to just 46% shooting with a foul rate of .400 without him). With Durant and Westbrook, he’s providing valuable floor spacing, and he’s developed a knack for making backdoor cuts to the basket from the strong-side corner much like Harden did last season.

Make no mistake, Kevin Martin is not as good a player as James Harden is. Harden is a slightly better scorer and a drastically better ballhander and distributor. As I mentioned earlier, however, those advantages that he has over Martin create redundancies in Oklahoma City’s offense. By trading for Martin, the Thunder swapped out those redundancies for a skill set that streamlines the offense. It remains to be seen how much of the early success can be maintained throughout the season, but for now, all of those people who said the trade was a clear step backwards for the Thunder (*cough* me *cough*) might want to start looking for recipes for crow. Just in case

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