When the Oklahoma City Thunder made the premature decision to jettison one of its best three players, the Thunder’s 2012-13 title hopes went with him. The James Harden trade has been argued and analyzed from a number of different directions, but here’s the truth: When OKC sent its beloved beard to the Houston Rockets, it left the Western Conference pretty wide open and made thousands of Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers fans incredibly happy.
Just days before the season, the Thunder were discussing contracts with James Harden and when the two parties couldn’t come to an agreement. Harden was unceremoniously shipped to the Houston Rockets with Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and three 2013 draft picks (two first-rounders and one second-rounder). People who argued for the trade accurately pointed out that the Thunder were getting a solid shooter who could score off the bench in Martin and that Lamb is a nice, young prospect. For giving Harden up, the return certainly seemed to be worth it.
In spite of trading the Sixth Man of the Year, the Thunder still locked up the No. 1 seed in the West and seemed like they could contend after Kevin Durant‘s best statistical season in his career. But then in Game 2 of the opening round, Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury and the rest was history. Durant was enough to carry Oklahoma City to a first-round victory against the young Rockets (led by the very player they needed), but even he wasn’t good enough to get past a superior Memphis Grizzlies team. Serge Ibaka never stepped up his scoring as the team’s second option, despite the fact that the Thunder basically picked him over Harden by giving him big money. Kevin Martin couldn’t step up as a ball handler who could open up defenses and, like Ibaka, couldn’t score enough to help out his team, averaging just 14.4 points per game in the series on 41 percent shooting. Without Westbrook, Kevin Durant was on an island without anyone who could attack the basket. You know, kind of like how Harden did against the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs last year:
I’m not going to say the Westbrook injury is the biggest reason the James Harden trade was a disaster, because there was no way of knowing that Westbrook would play two games and miss the rest of the playoffs. The guy had never missed a game in his NBA career, after all. Obviously you don’t make trade decisions based on the possibility of your stars getting injured, but the fact remains: The Oklahoma City Thunder screwed this up.
Why? Well, let’s see what else they gave up. Their chance of winning the 2012-13 title is the obvious one. On a surface level, they gave up a guy who averaged 25.9 points, 5.8 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. Just in case you didn’t notice right away, those are superstar numbers more than worthy of the max money the Thunder wouldn’t dish out. Ibaka’s “max money numbers” this year: 13.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game. Those numbers aren’t shabby, but they don’t compare to Harden’s stat line. But most important of all is his ability to get to the basket and the free-throw line, which was absolutely huge down the stretch of playoff games when Durant and Westbrook would get a little too jump-shot happy. There really are no words for trading a guy loved by fans for his infamous trademark beard who has an immediately noticeable impact every time he steps on the court.
I agree that the Thunder got a pretty decent return for Harden, but that argument is not a justifiable defense for getting rid of a top-three shooting guard who exposed other team’s reserves as the Sixth Man of the Year. His emergence as a superstar proves that he was worth the max money and it’s despicable that an organization raking in millions of dollars every year couldn’t pay Harden and show dedication toward winning a championship some day. The most ludicrous part is that Harden’s contract still had a year on it. What that means is that the decision to ship him off when they were unable to work out a new deal was entirely premature by a full calendar year.
But here’s the real kicker: Unless Dwyane Wade‘s body continues to fail him, LeBron James decides to leave Miami in 2014 or the NBA discovers Chris Bosh is a dinosaur and forbids him from playing, the Heat will be championship favorites in the league for years to come. Durant got his first taste of how hard it is to carry a team with little to no help, but even with a healthy Westbrook, the Thunder cannot beat Miami the way the teams are currently made up. They could’ve had another season to bond with their big three Durant-Westbrook-Harden combo, an improving Ibaka and a burning hunger for revenge. I’m not saying Durant and Westbrook will never make the leap, because they very well could if LeBron leaves Miami next summer. But as Bill Simmons wrote, the shot of Oklahoma City’s big three standing arm-in-arm watching the clock run out on their NBA Finals hopes may be the only lasting image we have of a team that could’ve contended for a title for years to come. And when you have a shot at a title or a dynasty-in-the-making, you don’t trade part of it away.