Back in June 2012, arms draped around one another, Oklahoma City Thunder teammates James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant looked on as confetti fell from the ceiling of American Airlines Arena. What they saw pained them. It was LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammates boisterously celebrating their NBA Championship, a victory which marked James’ first title. He had been to the Finals two times prior but was defeated in each appearance. Even though his previous trips to the Finals ended in bitter disappointment, there was a common sentiment that James would inevitably win a championship. Because of this, the Heat defeating the Thunder was a surprise to very few.
The surprise of the 2012 NBA Finals in hindsight is that the Thunder have not returned to the game’s biggest stage since. In fact, Oklahoma City’s three budding superstars would never play another game together following their defeat to the Heat. Harden was packaged and sent off to Houston prior to the start of the 2012-13 season for a bundle of draft picks, while Durant stayed with the Thunder for another four seasons before bolting to the Bay to play for the Golden State Warriors. Russell Westbrook is the lone remnant of the Thunder’s fabled 2012 squad, a trio that seemed destined to go reach heights that most franchises could only dream of. The three former teammates, and current superstars, are all having MVP-caliber seasons in 2016-2017, but they are on different teams. The NBA universe was robbed of what could have been one of the most prolific dynasties in the history of the sport.
After losing to the Heat, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti understood that with the NBA’s salary cap restrictions, it would be challenging to keep his team intact given the amount of money that his core of players could demand on the open market. He had a challenging decision to make. Presti knew Harden would become a free agent after the 2013 season, and rather than riding out the contract and trying to re-sign the dynamic southpaw in the off-season, the Thunder GM decided to trade Harden when his value was at it’s peak: right after his superb play throughout the Thunder’s run to the Finals. Presti’s decision would have been understandable if he absolutely had zero chance of retaining Harden after the following season.
This however, was simply not the case. Rather, Presti felt that Serge Ibaka would be a better fit alongside Westbrook and Durant, and thus shipped Harden to Houston. Ibaka fit nicely alongside Okahoma City’s dynamic duo but simply didn’t move the needle enough. This past off-season, Ibaka was traded to the Orlando Magic (then subsequently traded to the Raptors) and is averaging a respectable 15.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Harden, on the other hand, is having an otherworldly season in Houston, averaging 29.2 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 11.2 APG. The Thunder’s first monumental mistake was keeping Ibaka instead of Harden.
Even after trading away Harden, the Thunder still had two of the top five players in the league under their control. Durant and Westbrook proved to be a lethal duo, but they could not reach the pinnacle without a competent supporting cast. For four years, they searched for another scorer. A shooter. A teammate that they could trust to take a big shot when Durant or Westbrook got double-teamed. Precisely what they had in James Harden. Their first replacement option was Kevin Martin. After he was deemed incapable of filling the void left by Harden, the Thunder acquired Dion Waiters. That acquisition did not pan out either. Despite having two marquee talents, the Thunder could not attract upper echelon talent via free agency. It all rested on the shoulders of Russ and KD.
After the previous two seasons had been derailed by a myriad of injuries, the Thunder went into this past season with Kevin Durant’s free agency looming. They hired Billy Donovan to replace Scott Brooks as their head coach. The coaching switch seemed to be paying major dividends, as the Thunder were one game from reaching the NBA Finals. Then, the dearth of offensive firepower outside of Durant and Westbrook that had plagued them ever since Harden’s departure proved to be their downfall once again. They lost to the Warriors in seven games after holding a three-to-one series lead. Durant’s patience had run out. After trading Harden, Durant gave the Thunder four seasons to surround him with teammates equipped to make a run at the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Thunder had failed yet again. The second monumental mistake made by the Thunder was failing to surround Durant and Westbrook with enough complementary pieces to win a championship.
With Durant now in Golden State, the Thunder is unquestionably Westbrook’s team. He is averaging a triple-double, making him the first player to do so since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62. While Westbrook is putting up video-game-like numbers, his team is not attaining the same level of success as it had five years earlier. At one time, Oklahoma City had three of the future top candidates for 2016-17 MVP on their team, and somehow managed to screw it up. With Harden, Westbrook, and Durant, the Thunder had the ability to be one of the great teams in NBA history, but they were separated before this dynasty could materialize. It will be remembered as one of the biggest “what if’s?” in NBA history.