10 years later: How the Harden trade cost the OKC Thunder a dynasty

James Harden (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
James Harden (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the most consequential trade in NBA history. On October 27, 2012, the OKC Thunder traded James Harden and two other players to the Houston Rockets for a package that included Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and two future first-round picks that became Steven Adams and Mitch McGary. At the time, it was seen as a questionable decision for the Thunder, but GM Sam Presti had just assembled the greatest collection of young players in NBA history, so they were given the benefit of the doubt.

In retrospect, it’s widely regarded as one of the worst trades in NBA history, costing small-market Oklahoma City a dynasty. In fact, Presti’s decision indirectly led to the Golden State Warriors dynasty. So, what happened? Why did the Thunder make such a mind-blowingly bad trade? Let’s take a closer look.

The Oklahoma City Thunder had reasons to move James Harden.

While it’s easy to criticize Presti now, there were a few legit reasons why he made the trade. For one thing, there was a new collective bargaining agreement that increased the luxury tax. Previously, teams could essentially spend whatever they wanted to, so long as they were willing to write a check for the amount, they were over the tax threshold.

With the new luxury tax, for every $5 million over the tax threshold, the tax rate increases, costing teams way more than before, particularly with the repeater tax. That change, and the NBA’s decision to retroactively bump Kevin Durant up to the newly created rookie max, caused the Oklahoma City Thunder to be concerned about having a consistent luxury tax-paying team.

After all, the salary cap was only $50 million at the time, and the tax threshold was $70 million, and it wasn’t expected to dramatically increase following a recession. Moreover, Durant was making $19 million on average, along with Russell Westbrook making $17 million and Serge Ibaka earning $12 million. Additionally, with Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison combining to make around $14 million, re-signing Harden and staying under the luxury tax seemed impossible.

The Oklahoma City Thunder sold low and too soon on Harden.

By trading Harden, the Thunder lost out on a future league MVP and scoring champion, though he likely wouldn’t have developed into that in Oklahoma City. Still, they could’ve kept together their incredible core four that featured Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka by trading Perkins and Collison over Harden, or by playing out the string and waiting until after his fourth season to sign and trade him. That would’ve given them another year together and a chance to get back to the NBA Finals. Instead, they sold low on him.

At the time, Martin was a high scorer coming off a down season but was seen as a reasonable facsimile of Harden, with Lamb and the two firsts helping make up the difference. They didn’t. Harden became an immediate star with the Rockets, averaging nearly 26 points per game during his first full season.

Meanwhile, Adams turned into a capable starting center, but Martin only played one season with the Thunder, McGary only played 52 games in the NBA, and Lamb was just okay as a backup before having his best years elsewhere.

Worse yet, in the following seasons, the cap skyrocketed. It increased from $50 million in 2012-2013 to $73 million in 2016 and now stands at $126.3 million ten years later. Simply put, the Thunder thought they couldn’t afford to keep Harden without having to pay the luxury tax year after year. That obviously wasn’t the case, and while Harden or Durant might’ve still eventually moved on, they shot themselves in the foot by punting on several years with three superstars.

Have the OKC Thunder recovered?

Yes and no. While the OKC Thunder did make it to the Western Conference Finals twice, back in 2014 and 2016, post-Harden, they lost to the San Antonio Spurs and Warriors. Durant then left to join Golden State. The Thunder managed to recover by trading for Paul George and signing him to a big contract, only to later trade him to the Clippers for five first-round picks and Shai-Gilgeous-Alexander.

That’s looking like a fantastic decision, but it doesn’t make up for the Harden trade; it simply improves their future outlook. Not only did they break up the greatest young core ever, but they traded Harden to another team in the West and watched as they became a title contender. Moreover, with Harden, the Thunder would’ve beaten back the Warriors and the Spurs. There’s no telling how many championships the Thunder could’ve won, and the trade forever altered the NBA landscape and several legacies.

Next. Is Memphis reminiscent of the 2010s OKC Thunder?. dark

They can’t change that now, of course, and they’re full steam ahead with a new rebuild, and they have plenty of picks to find their next set of stars. Better yet, they already have one in Gilgeous-Alexander and possibly another in Chet Holmgren. Still, barring landing Victor Wembanyama, they may never live up to the potential that the early 2010’s OKC Thunder showed before the Harden Trade.