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Hoops Lab: Missing Harden

Andre' Snellings

Andre' Snellings is a Neural Engineer by day, and RotoWire's senior basketball columnist by night. He's a two-time winner of the Fantasy Basketball Writer of the Year award from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

Oklahoma City still misses Harden

Timing is everything.

I had JUST got done typing the title for this week's Hoops Lab on Friday afternoon, when I checked my Twitter feed and saw this:

That changed my entire approach. I had planned to talk about how the Thunder were once again atop the NBA, battling for the best record in the league this year and finding ways to succeed even with James Harden and Kevin Martin gone. I had planned to talk about how Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb were combining to somewhat approximate what the Thunder would have gotten from Harden in terms of style and production, and to explore the theory of whether or not that combination approach would be enough to help them win a title this year.

That was the plan.

But with the news that Westbrook's knee is still a problem, to the point that he's requiring spontaneous surgeries to try to fix things, this article has shifted from an analytical discussion into (yet another) criticism of what the Thunder missed out on by shipping Harden out last season.

Essentially, by shipping out Harden, the Thunder did two things: they put a cap on their ceiling, and they removed their room for error. They have shown in each of the last two seasons that they could be a formidable regular season team with their band-aids at shooting guard. Kevin Durant has expanded his offensive game to include impressive playmaking along with his already absurd scoring touch, and the 1-2 punch of Durant and Westbrook is enough to make them offensively competitive against anyone. Add in the solid (if unspectacular) face-up game of Serge Ibaka and their role players, and you have the makings of a strong regular season team. In fact, their regular season results may not have looked all that much different over the past season-and-a-half with Harden on the squad.

The difference is what happens when the status quo is disturbed. What happens when the Thunder face an elite team than can limit Durant or Westbrook, causing the other to have to carry the offense alone? What happens in the postseason, when that elite team gets the chance to game plan specifically on the flaws in the Thunder offense over multiple games? Or, most importantly, what happens if Westbrook (or Durant) have to sit out for any kind of extended period against those good teams?

What happens? They lose.

As the advanced stats indicated in 2011 and 2012, and as we've gotten to see since he moved on to Houston, Harden really was an equal partner in Oklahoma City along with Durant and Westbrook. Much like the Manu Ginobili to the Spurs' Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, Harden had the ability to contribute elite production in what would traditionally be a lesser role. But he ALSO had the ability to step up his game and become the primary option at a moment's notice when one of the other two was limited by either the opposition or injury.

With Harden on the team, a Westbrook injury would essentially have reduced the squad to "only" the potential that it currently has when Westbrook is healthy. But with Harden gone, a Westbrook injury dooms the Thunder to long-term mediocrity.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not predicting that the sky is going to fall in Oklahoma over the next couple of months. They'll still be a formidable team and will still be among the leaders in the Western Conference when Westbrook returns. Durant will continue his battle for fantasy MVP and may even enhance his status with added production in the interim. Jackson and Lamb should both play well and should be picked up in every league. In a sense, the Thunder got lucky that Westbrook's knee issues came in the regular season this year as opposed to in the playoffs like last year. But the injury does shine another spotlight on just how small their margin is for error and just how badly they need to have luck and health in order to thrive. And if not for financial considerations, this wouldn't have had to be their reality.

Around the League

Horford's torn pec: Al Horford has a torn right pectoral muscle, the same injury that kept him out of 55 games two seasons ago. It has been reported that he may not even be able to return for the playoffs, which would effectively have him done for the year. On the fantasy front, this makes Elton Brand worth an immediate pickup and also leaves more opportunity for Paul Millsap to become the focal point.

As for real life ramifications, how excited must the Boston Celtics be right now? With the trade that they made this summer, they are entitled to the lesser pick between the Nets' and the Hawks' picks. With the way this season is progressing, that could end up being a very nice pick indeed.

LeBron's sore groin and ankle: LeBron James strained his right groin and aggravated a left ankle sprain on Friday against the Kings. He is questionable for Saturday night's game against the Trail Blazers. LeBron has typically been a tank for his entire career, and these injuries sound relatively minor, so don't expect him to miss much action. On the other hand, LeBron is in his 11th season in the NBA and has built up a lot of wear and tear, so we can't just assume he's impervious to injury anymore. Keep an eye out.

In the meantime, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are obvious upgrades for any games that LeBron misses. For Saturday night in particular, Wade is coming off extra rest (he sat out on Friday in his usual back-to-back absence) and could put up big numbers if LeBron sits.

Howard's sore back: Dwight Howard only played 18 minutes on Thursday against the Grizzlies, posting two points with six rebounds. Part of his absence was due to foul trouble, but he was also ailing with a sore back. After his back issues of recent years, this is definitely worthy of concern. As yet there hasn't been any type of announcement that Howard is expected to miss any time, so hopefully this is still just minor soreness. Howard is already a dangerous player to own in roto leagues because of his anchor-like free throw effect, but that negative can be somewhat mitigated if he's dominating the glass and blocks. If the sore back limits his athleticism, even if he can play through it, his value once again tails into the negative.

Melo's sore ankle: Carmelo Anthony isn't traveling with the Knicks to Toronto for Saturday's game, making this the third game he will have missed since spraining his ankle. He is considered day-to-day, so he should be back on the court relatively soon. But the timing is bad for people in weekly transaction leagues, as you might have to make the decision on whether to start him before he has a chance to get back on the court. Barring the announcement of a longer absence, I plan to start Anthony next week in weekly leagues with the rationale that the Knicks' first game next week isn't until Thursday. This gives Melo more than a full week since the injury to recover, and I'm betting he'll be back out there for the Knicks' primetime matchup with the Spurs on Thursday.

Deng's sore Achilles: In the same league that I have Anthony, I also have another decision to make on who to start for next week with Luol Deng. Deng has missed three straight games with a sore Achilles tendon issue that could potentially plague him all season. He participated in most of practice on Friday and is a game-time decision on Saturday, but if he doesn't play then that makes him risky for next week as well. And unlike the Knicks, the Bulls' schedule next week is front-loaded with two of their three games on Monday and Tuesday. If Deng is unable to go on Saturday, barring a definite announcement that he will return on Monday, I might consider sitting him next week.

Sanders is back: Larry Sanders returned from his broken thumb on Friday night, scoring 10 points with seven boards and two blocks in 22 minutes of action. He was expected to be a major impact player this year after his breakout last season, but his very slow start and injury caused him to be dropped in several leagues and devalued in the rest. If you're a Sanders believer, this is likely your last chance to trade for him on the cheap. Of some concern, though, I saw him wincing and holding his newly healed thumb at times during the game which suggests that he is still struggling a bit in his recovery. Buyer beware, but he still has major block/rebound upside.

Beverley's broken hand: Patrick Beverley broke the fourth metacarpal in his right hand last Saturday and is expected to be out for at least the next month. His absence once again gives Jeremy Lin the reins in Houston. Lin has averaged 17 points, 4.0 assists, 3.3 boards and 1.3 treys in his three games since returning from his own injury issues and is a strong play for the next month.

New Additions

Reggie Jackson (39% owned in Yahoo! leagues), Thabo Sefolosha (10% owned) and Jeremy Lamb (9% owned): Jackson has become a must-own with Russell Westbrook (knee) out until at least the All-Star break, and both Sefolosha and Lamb are persons of interest as well. Prior to Westbrook's injury Jackson, Lamb and Thabo Sefolosha were splitting about 60 minutes on the wing. On Friday night, with Westbrook out, they combined for 78 minutes, about 30 percent more minutes, and their production should proceed apace.

Khris Middleton (36% owned) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (21% owned): Middleton and Antetokounmpo have really stepped up of late, carving out a large swatch of minutes from the Bucks rotation. Antetokounmpo (that's the last time I'm typing that name, by the way) was expected to be more of a future play, but he has averaged 11.5 points, 6.5 boards, 2.2 assists and 1.2 blocks in 34 minutes of action over the last two weeks as he utilizes his freakishly long arms (7-3 wingspan) to full advantage. Middleton has become the preferred small-ball power forward option in Milwaukee, taking over for the previously injured Ersan Ilyasova. Over that same two week stretch Middleton is averaging 17.5 points, 6.0 boards, 2.5 assists, 2.3 treys and 1.2 steals in more than 40 minutes per game.

D.J. Augustin (22% owned): Augustin has found new life in Chicago, who signed him as a free agent after Derrick Rose went down. Last week, Kirk Hinrich missed some time with injury as well, and Augustin responded by averaging 15.3 points with 6.7 assists, 3.0 treys and 1.7 steals over his last three games. Hinrich returned to the court for the Bulls' last game, but Augustin still got 33 minutes and produced solid numbers in that game as well.

Elton Brand (7% owned): As mentioned above, the injury to Al Horford makes Brand an immediate person of interest. He may no longer be what he was, but he is still averaging 9.1 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per 36 minutes this season. If his minutes increase into the mid-20s range, he could be a viable roto big man.

Keeping up with the Professor
If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that you can catch me on the radio on RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210.