Swingman James Harden was the NBA's sixth man of the year last season. (Larry W. Smith / EPA )
The Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets pulled off a late offseason trade on Saturday that sent James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and draft considerations.
Harden was a major factor in knocking the Lakers out of the postseason last May.
The move for the Thunder was more about economics than basketball. The new collective-bargaining agreement includes increasingly punitive luxury taxes and Oklahoma City is already heavily invested in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
The move will probably benefit the Lakers should the two meet again in the postseason.
Harden is a capable shooter and defender. In the playoffs against the Lakers, he was able to drive into the paint to either score or draw a foul. Certainly the Lakers will have their hands full with Durant and Westbrook in the future, but Harden seemed to be the difference-maker in the series.
On paper, the Lakers have improved over last year, with the additions of Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison. Of course, the Lakers have to prove they can win even a single game after dropping all eight in the preseason.
Injuries have slowed the team's development, but the Lakers will round into form as they get healthy and grow more comfortable in Coach Mike Brown's offense.
The Thunder are still a major threat. Martin can also shoot and get to the line, but he's not close to Harden as a defender or playmaker. Lamb's game is actually similar to Martin's, although he's younger and more athletic.
In the short term, it would appear the Thunder have taken a step backward. If the Lakers can come together and stay healthy, the road through the Western Conference might have gotten slightly easier.
Three Lakers waiting to make the cut
Lakers broadcasts are coming to Charter, FiOS
The good, the bad and the ugly for the Lakers in exhibition games
You can email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.