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Alternate History

What If Harden Wasn’t Traded From OKC

It’s been 10 years now, a full decade since one of the most monumental trades in NBA history. It changed the landscape of the NBA and depleted one of the greatest collections of young talent ever assembled with three future MVP’s. The young Thunder were just coming off an NBA final losing to the Heat and beating the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals that season who were the number 1 seed. At the time it seemed like a true changing of the guard and may very well have been had the Thunder been willing to pay to keep their team together. Instead, a few months later Harden would be in Houston and the Spurs would make the next two finals, winning one. The Thunder would never be quite the same. Let’s take a look at that 2012 Finals team.

2011-12
ageppgrpgapgPER
Kevin Durant232883.526.2
Russell Westbrook2323.64.65.522.9
James Harden2216.84.13.721.1
Serge Ibaka229.17.50.419
Kendrick Perkins275.16.61.28.7
Thabo Sefolosha274.831.19.8
Reggie Jackson213.11.21.69.2

These were the core players and young talent off of that team. I believe it remains one of the biggest what-ifs in NBA history, what could this teams have accomplished if they were together in their prime? To this day is still malpractice to blow up an NBA Finalist with this kind of young talent. Let’s also remember the Thunder had Jeff Green who they traded for Kendrick Perkins the previous season which was a trade I didn’t like either. Nothing compared to the Harden trade.

October 27th 2012

Thunder Got:

Kevin Martin

Jeremy Lamb

2013 1st (Steven Adams selected)

2013 2nd (Alex Abrines selected)

2014 1st (Mitch McGary selected)

Rockets Got:

James Harden

Cole Aldridge

Daequan Cook

Lazar Hayward

It’s even worse than most people remember. I suppose Martin made some sense at the time as an off-ball shooter, but much of his value was tied up into getting to the free throw line, and you didn’t want the ball in his hands with Durant and Westbrook. Unlike Harden who could fill up the rest of a stat sheet when he wasn’t being asked to score Martin was a complete zero outside of scoring. One of the biggest zeroes in NBA history in fact. Lamb was a nice young prospect. That was an ok chance but no one expected him to be an All Star. He had the career I think most expected at the time. The Thunder really valued that 1st round pick that turned into Adams. At the time I believe they thought as a pick from the Raptors would be much higher than 12th. They got lucky in a way by selecting Adams as it was in a notoriously crappy draft at the top. They probably got a big head from previous draft success but they did pass on Giannis at 12th when he went 15th which had to sting as well.

What adds salt to the wound, years later as the Thunder were trying to hold on to Durant, they went deep into the tax. This after trying to nickel and dime Harden for a few million dollars and penny-pinch. Obviously, they didn’t understand the level of superstar they had at the time which is pretty ridiculous. He was coming off the bench the previous season, but really productive. When they traded him on October 27th 2012 just before the season started he dropped 37 points 12 assists, 6 rebounds 4 steals in the first game 4 days later and never looked back. I just imagine the regret they had that night as he would go on to finish 8th in the MVP that season at 23 years old.

There were some legit questions about maximizing the talent with 3 such ball-dominant players, but those were overblown. Harden and Durant are two of the greatest offensive players in history and would have been great off the ball as well with Westbrook feeding them. Westbrook could have still made himself useful rebounding and in other ways when he was without the ball those years as well. None of these players was a one-dimensional scorer. They could stuff a stat sheet, and 2 of the three were great off-the-ball shooters.

As a fan, it was nice to see the incredible MVP seasons Harden and Westbrook had independent of Durant. They have some of the greatest statistical seasons in NBA history. Here is an article I wrote on Westbrooks’s incredible seasons. That wouldn’t have happened to either without Durant. It’s also possible if they were all together for a decade there could have been power struggles as they tried to spread their wings. It’s possible it could have collapsed on itself as it did anyway without Harden being given away. Players this good want their own teams. Still, it raises the question of just how dominant could this franchise could have been in that decade which we are left wondering had they not traded Harden. They would have certainly been together for a lot longer for sure. We will try to break down how those seasons might have gone without that terrible trade.

2012-13

The Rockets with Harden would face the Thunder in the 1st round this season as a 1 seed 8 seed matchup after trading him. This is when Pat Beverly famously injured Westbrook in game 2 derailing the Thunder season. The Thunder still beat the Rockets 4-2 in the series, with Harden averaging 26.3ppg, 6.7rpg, 4.5apg on .548% true shooting. Had James Harden still been on the Thunder that season even without an injured Wesbrook they are likely still a contender. Harden had made great improvements that season as had Ibaka from their 2012 finalist team. Still, I don’t think they would have won, as the Spurs and Heat were both really good that season.

OKC probably goes down in the western conference finals to the Spurs without Westbrook. With a healthy Westbrook it’s possible the Thunder could have won, but I still think this was the year of the Spurs/Heat and not much changes. A young Kawhi Leonard had gotten better, and just the way they moved the ball and their shooting seemed at a different level with Danny Green stepping up his game as well around their 3 Hall of Famers. It was more of a team, and one that should have beaten the defending champ Heat at their pinnacle. I’d still give the Spurs the benefit of the doubt. Even had the Thunder gotten by the Spurs I don’t see them beating the Heat even with Westbrook. They were still young, and it wasn’t their time this season either way in my opinion. Miami Heat Champs.

2013-14

OKC would meet the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals this season beating them 4-2. Martin was gone by that point and none of the player’s Harden was traded for were factors at all. Reggie Jackson had stepped into that 3rd scoring role. If they had Harden he would have helped them certainly, but I still believe this was the year of the Spurs. The Spurs performance in the finals was to this day the greatest team play and ball movement I have ever seen. They completely dominated a team coming off 2 championships and 3 straight finals appearances with perhaps the 1st or 2nd best players in history in Lebron at his peak. OKC would have put up a better fight than the Heat with (Harden, they did without him) but I still got to believe the Spurs turn it up on the Thunder as well, and nothing much changes with Harden other than going to 7 games, perhaps. This Spurs team was a great TEAM that fit and knew how to win. –San Antonio Champs

2014-15

The Beautiful Game, the team ball the Spurs set in motion was ruling by this point. It was a stark contrast to what OKC was doing at the time and likely would have been doing with Harden as well. Coming off the ball movement of the Spurs in the finals the prior season, the Warriors took it up a level with Curry revolutionizing the game with his shooting and small ball and winning their first championship this season. I believe the Thunder would have had better individual talent, but their system if you can call it that was your turn my turn. I think Harden would have just fallen in line for his turn.

Overall this is the point where the Thunder’s big three stars likely start to have diminishing returns.. The Warriors are an all-time great dynasty. I believe that has been proven out winning now multiple times without Durant.. They had the system and a better fit of talent. It’s a better team this season in my opinion, and it’s hard to say the Thunder even if healthy would have stopped them this season. Unfortunately, Durant wasn’t healthy and only played 27 games after breaking his foot. They missed the playoffs as a team. With Harden to help Wesbrook, they certainly make the playoffs, but they aren’t getting by the Warriors without Durant for sure, and maybe not even if he were healthy. Harden’s Rockets would lose in the WCF’s to the Warrriors 4-1. It’s likely a similar outcome without Durant. Nothing changes this season either in my opinion. –Golden State Champs.

2015-16 – OKC Championship

This is the best year in my opinion. It’s the season the Thunder took the Warriors to a game 7 and lost even without Harden. Curry had gotten hurt earlier in the playoffs and wasn’t 100%, but he also wasn’t bad 27.9ppg, 6.3rpg, 5.9apg on .612% true shooting. With Harden, however, I think the Thunder beat them this season as Curry was still a little gimpy on defense. With Harden, Curry at less than 100% couldn’t hide on defense as easily as he could on Deion Waiters who played 31 minutes a game that series. I believe that’s the difference in what was already a 7 game series. The Cavs would go on to win the title that year after Draymond got suspended. I believe the Warriors were still the better team and would have won without that bonehead move. This seems like the Thunder’s year if Harden was still there when all were near their peak with Curry less than 100% in the playoffs. This is the year Durant and Westbrook are 27 and Harden is 26. You don’t get more prime than that.

2016-17 -OKC Championship

If the Thunder win, as I believe they would in 2016 Durant never goes to Golden State. I doubt he would have even gone to Golden State had they still lost if Harden were there. If anything I believe OKC had tried to move off of Russell Westbrook instead at that point and build a better-fitting team around Harden and Durant. We pretty much got to see that in Brooklyn years later as well for 16 games of Durant and Harden. I believe Durant stays in OKC if they had beaten the Warriors in 2016 and had Harden. This is a time Harden may have been looking for an exit though, but he was under contract for another year. Ibaka is never traded as well if Durant stays as he fits.

They keep the band together setting up a showdown with a more healthy version of the Warriors with Barnes instead of Durant. This one is the hardest to predict I believe as well as the Thunder played vs the Warriors even without Harden, and as well as the Rockets would play the Warriors in 2018 even with Durant this year that the Thunder have the edge. Durant, Harden, and Westbrook were insane by this point. Fit aside it’s three MVP’s in MVP form. Harden would finish 2nd in the MVP, Wesbtrook 1st and Durant had an MVP and would win the finals MVP and be the best player on the championship Warriors. The Warriors fit and system is certainly better, and they have one MVP and Defensive POY-type player, but this level of talent at their peak overwhelms them I believe. I think it’s clunky at times, but they figure out a way to make it work.

Curry is great this year, but Durant is the best player on both Warrior’s championship teams. Harden is nearly on the level of Curry in the regular season and Westbrook won the MVP. This is the season that could have been the best Thunder team and one of the best teams in history. With Durant and Westbrook at his side, I don’t think Harden has the kind of disappearing acts he had in the playoffs at times. He wouldn’t have had the same pressures on him. This is the Peak Thunder Season.

2017-18-OKC Championship

I think this season is more of the same. Durant was leading the Warriors to the championship in reality. Harden was winning MVP and taking that Warriors team to 7 games without the same level of talent. Wesbrook had won the MVP the season prior. If they are all together they continue their domination of the league.

2018-19

This is another year that is hard to predict with Durant tearing his Achilles during the finals. I don’t think the Raptors are a great team, but I do think without Durant the Thunder would have lost. Harden still had his playoff foibles, and Westbrook had fully forgotten how to shoot by this point. As well as Harden’s Rockets played the Warriors with Durant. Had they still been together the Thunder are the finals. With Durant hurt, I think the Raptors still win. Toronto Raptors Championship

2019-20

During the Pandemic year, Durant’s out with an injury. Westbrook’s best days are in his rearview. I think this is the season changes are made. If not during the season after the season. Durant likely is looking for another team like he already did with Brooklyn. We saw it go sort of sideways when Durant and Harden were together in Brooklyn, so when they stopped dominating I do believe it would have started to collapse and break up.

Conclusion

Alternative HistoryChamps
2012-13Miami Heat
2013-14San Antonio Spurs
2014-15Golden State Warriors
2015-16OKC Thunder
2016-17OKC Thunder
2017-18OKC Thunder
2018-19Toronto Raptors
2019-20La Lakers
2020-21Milwaukee Bucks
2021-22Golden State Warriors
MVP
2012-13LeBron James
2013-14Kevin Durant
2014-15Steph Curry
2015-16Steph Curry
2016-17Kevin Durant
2017-18Kevin Durant
2018-19Giannis Antetokounmpo
2019-20Giannis Antetokounmpo
2020-21Nikola Jokic
2021-22Nikola Jokic

As you can see Durant’s standing likely would be upgraded with more championships and MVP’s. I do think individually Harden and Westbrook are thought of less of in history without the trad and the all-time great seasons they turned in do not happen. They would however likely have at least 3 championships that would compensate for some.

The biggest loser of the Harden 2012 trade happening is probably Kevin Durant. I think the trade benefited both Harden and Westbrook and their all time standings. All in all as a fan of the NBA I like the way it worked out in reality better. I think the season’s Harden and Westbrook had independent of Durant were more important in the history of the NBA. The Warriors Dynasty Durant would latch onto and lead even was ultimately more dynamic than what OKC was likely to turn in with the better fit. It provided an even greater all-time team with Durant on the Warriors.

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