A decade after Oklahoma City traded James Harden on the eve of the 2012-13 season, it still stands as a brutality to the art of dynasty building. When the central players involved in that deal ruined their careers in bleak circumstances, there was no denying it, the sale of Harden in Oklahoma City was the most disadvantageous deal an organization had ever made. positions performed in NBA history.
After the 2012 NBA Finals loss to the Miami Heat, Thunder executives were encouraged by their progress. Each of their four players is 24 or under, including their plug-in midfielder Serge Ibaka. However, Harden’s poor performance in the Finals series against Miami and the Thunder’s financial condition made the organization hesitant to offer him a contract extension. After General Manager Sam Presti offered Serge Ibaka a 4-year $48 million contract, Harden turn down a friendly football team for four years, $52 million renewed knowing that in 2013 he could claim a maximum contract as a restricted free agent.
Instead of embarking on another title chase with Harden, Presti took drastic measures. On October 27, Presti triggered a trade that took Harden and the roster to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and one second-round pick. Oklahoma City has had to deal with the aftermath ever since. Thunder was still a competitor in the West, but once Harden was traded, Thunder’s ceiling was significantly lower. Juggernaut’s potential is gone.
Harden existed as a buffer between the pro-Westbrook and pro-Durant camps. When he was gone, Westbrook turned into a living rope in the offense. He consistently leads the league in spins, attempts to shoot more per game than Durant, and does the point distribution task one would expect. That dynamic allows the question “Whose team is that?” debates to take off. The insecurity between Westbrook and Durant continued until they left Oklahoma City for the Golden State.
In the decade since Harden was traded, it’s clear they’ve gotten in the way. Harden, Westbrook and Durant were each named the MVP of the tournament, but they weren’t built to share the limelight together. Durant was awarded the MVP title in 2013 during a season in which Westbrook was fit for only 46 games, while Westbrook’s sole MVP came to Oklahoma City after his first season after KD.
Few posited that the Thunder’s Sixth Man of the Year would end up as the preeminent guard of the decade, though. Three years into his career, Harden’s resume was more similar to Kevin Huerter than Michael Jordan. On his own, Harden blossomed into one of the most complete offensive guards in league history. Unfortunately, Harden spent his entire Houston tenure experimenting with a variety of different partners to give them a leg up on the competition in the postseason.
None would ever appease him. In 2013, Morey acquired Dwight Howard to be the ideal pick-and-roll partner with Harden and a one-man paint protector. Unfortunately, Howard was quickly becoming a relic as pace and space offenses turned him into a liability.
Once the Harden-Howard partnership collapsed, Morey searched for synergy with Chris Paul and Harden. On the hardwood, Paul and Harden excelled. Unfortunately, Harden’s personality struggled to co-exist with another superstar. After two years and coming one game short of the NBA Finals, Paul was shipped off to Oklahoma City for Westbrook. Once again, Harden butt heads with anoooother teammate.
Once he touched down in Brooklyn, Harden, Kyrie Irving and Durant formed an offensive Volton. However, Harden’s hamstring injury allowed the Bucks to sneak past Brooklyn. Midway through the next season, Harden forced a trade out of Brooklyn to Philadelphia. Now 34, Harden has produced fireworks on the stat sheet, but has never been able to mesh with another co-star.
In retrospect, Harden was always going to burn out playing alongside Westbrook and Durant. Watching the 2011-12 Thunder in hindsight is akin to The Supremes singing backup to the Temptations early in their careers. Their ball-dominant styles served as the counter to Golden State’s egalitarian, ball-has-energy, motion offense. Their egos made them cautionary tales.
All three all wanted the ball in his hand and they flourished once allowed to run their respective offenses with no guardrails. That was never going to happen with Durant, Harden, and Westbrook in the lineup. The 2012 Thunder tallied the fewest passes in the league.
Westbrook, 34, has sunk like a boulder as his explosiveness has declined. Westbrook’s bull-in-a-china shop mentality and shot selection off of line-drive jumpers has cratered his impact. He’s always been an inefficient scorer, but now that he can’t compensate athletically, he’s nearly a leper.
Conversely, Durant is wasting his talents on a Nets team that he purposely marooned himself on. The path not taken should have resulted in the Thunder’s big three winning a championship or three. The 2016 Conference Finals series would have played out differently in NBA annals if Harden were another offensive option for the Thunder when Durant and Westbrook’s shots stopped falling during the final three games of that collapse. With a ring in 2016, Durant probably remains in Oklahoma City until at least 2019.
Meanwhile, after going ringless in the OKC Big 3 era, Presti is still on a mission to redeem himself by replicating that draft artistry. Ultimately, the Thunder chose Westbrook and a bargain deal on Ibaka over Harden’s demands. Today, Oklahoma City is still facing a reckoning for those choices.