Thunder need to find another Harden in draft

OKLAHOMA CITY — We’re only about a week away from talking about James Harden.


Seems the Thunder, Harden and his beard will always be connected, and it takes some effort to believe it shouldn’t be that way. After all, Harden helped the Thunder to the NBA Finals a season ago, and the general consensus was his absence kept them from making a return trip this year.

Oklahoma City owns Toronto’s No. 12 pick in the NBA draft on June 27, because of the trade that sent Harden to Houston and Kyle Lowry to Toronto. And all the talk surrounding that pick is focusing on OKC’s center position.

Seems these days, no one likes Kendrick Perkins. Everyone wants him gone. The only thing worse than the press he got during the playoffs is his contract, which guarantees him more than $8.4 million this coming year.

It’s no surprise that more than a few mock drafts have the Thunder taking a big man with their No. 12 pick — you’ve just got to get production from the center. Perkins is not enough;your center has to give you something.

But instead of trying to replace Perkins, the Thunder need to put themselves in the same spot they were when Harden wore Oklahoma City white and blue. A season ago, the Thunder were able to get to The Finals with the same kind of production from Perkins. Yet this season, doing essentially the same thing he did the year before, he somehow became the bad guy.

Oklahoma City is good enough with the roster it has to make a return trip to the Finals next season — with or without Perkins. But to beat Miami and win a title, they’ve got to find another James Harden.

Thinking there’s a big guy in the draft who can come in and provide offense is as silly as Perkins taking a 15-foot jumper — it may work out, but it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. A good idea is finding an alternative scoring option.

The Thunder lost in the playoffs this year because Russell Westbrook wasn’t on the court and no one other than Kevin Durant could be counted upon on a semi-regular basis to do any of the heavy lifting.

With Westbrook and Durant and an “Option C,” suddenly no one worries about what Perkins does and doesn’t do any more.

Less than a handful of teams in the league feature a center. Roy Hibbert and Indiana are the best example, yet the best defensive play of the season came Sunday night when LeBron James blocked Tiago Splitter’s dunk. Miami plays without a center.

Dwight Howard might be the best center in the league, but hide your eyes if the Lakers are ever in a close game, because Howard not only can’t contribute, he can’t play. Los Angeles can’t put him on the court, because Howard can’t be trusted to make a free throw.

Are there good centers? Sure there are, but these days we’ve seen it’s more valuable to have shooters. Miami has LeBron James and six other guys who can knock down a jumper. The Pacers have Hibbert and a bunch of players who can score from anywhere.

So, instead of thinking about Perkins, the Thunder should direct their first-round attention to figuring out how to beat Miami.

Reggie Jackson has proven to be a capable scorer and he should really flourish if he’s in the game at the same time as Durant and Westbrook. Same goes for Serge Ibaka. Same goes for Kevin Martin.

So OKC might as well go get another scorer and not another center.

General manager Sam Presti has picked some winners in previous drafts with Harden and Westbrook. He’s whiffed on big men Byron Mullens and Cole Aldrich.

If someone like Miami’s Shane Larkin or Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum is available, it would be worth it. Players who don’t have to jump in now, but could score if they were summoned to.

Perkins will never be able to do that. He didn’t do it last year and he didn’t when the Thunder made the Finals.

Go get someone who can.

Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter @andrewgilmanOK