By Bryan Toporek
When searching NBA history books for the greatest “what if?” teams of all time, the conversation almost inevitably begins with the early-2010s Oklahoma City Thunder.
After assembling a core including Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden over a three-year span, the Thunder appeared to be on the precipice of a dynasty. Though the LeBron James-led Miami Heat waxed them in the 2012 NBA Finals, OKC had the league’s top collection of talent under the age of 25. With Durant (23), Westbrook (23), Harden (22), Ibaka (22) and Reggie Jackson (22) all on board, the Thunder only needed to find a center not named Kendrick Perkins to become a Finals fixture for the next half-decade.
Instead, the business of the NBA intervened and short-circuited the OKC dynasty before it could ever lift off.
Both Harden and Ibaka were heading into contract years in 2012-13, and Thunder management began nervously eyeing the luxury-tax payments they’d have shell out once those two were under new contracts. Rather than bite the bullet and re-sign both at whatever price necessary, OKC’s front office played hardball with Harden. The Thunder offered him $4.5 million less than the maximum he could receive, according to ESPN.com. When he didn’t immediately accept, they shipped him to Houston, where he immediately inked the four-year max deal Oklahoma City refused to offer.
Five years later, only one of OKC’s Core Four remains with the team. The Thunder shipped Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic prior to the 2016 NBA draft, and Durant departed as a free agent a week-and-a-half later. The lone survivor, Westbrook, could be on his way out of town as early as next summer if he decides not to sign the five-year, $200-plus million maximum extension the Thunder have offered him.
What would the NBA look like today had OKC kept Harden in the fold? Let’s hit reset and find out.
The ‘Core Four’ Thunder
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s glaringly obvious the Thunder botched their handling of Harden’s extension negotiations. They allowed a player who would develop into a two-time MVP runner-up to walk away for less than a $5 million difference in asking price.
While new deals for Harden and Ibaka would have sent the team into luxury-tax territory, both players’ new contracts wouldn’t have counted toward the luxury tax until the final day of the 2013-14 season, as Danny Leroux noted at Sporting News last November. Had the Thunder slashed salary elsewhere between the fall of 2012 and the spring of 2014, they could have potentially dodged luxury-tax payments while retaining all four members of their young core. Given the drastic salary-cap increases in recent years, their mistake is retroactively even more glaring.
Harden may not have emerged as the do-it-all superstar that he became in Houston, but he would have cured many of the ills that ailed OKC upon his departure. Had the Thunder kept Thabo Sefolosha in their starting lineup to provide defense alongside Westbrook and Durant, Harden would have been a Sixth Man of the Year lock as a rich man’s Manu Ginobili coming off the bench. When former head coach Scotty Brooks fell into the trap of resting Westbrook and Durant at the same time—as he was infuriatingly wont to do—Harden could have gobbled up possessions as the No. 1 option and feasted on reserve units.
Injuries ultimately stemmed whatever momentum the post-Harden Thunder gathered over those next few seasons. OKC finished 59-23 in its first year after the Harden trade, but its title dreams collapsed when Westbrook tore the meniscus in his left knee during a first-round series with Houston. The Thunder made it to the Western Conference Finals the following season, but Ibaka was hobbled with a calf injury he suffered during the final game of the previous round. Durant played only 27 games in 2014-15 due to a right foot injury he couldn’t shake. Ibaka, Westbrook and Durant all made it unscathed throughout the 2015-16 campaign, but a 3-1 series collapse against Golden State in the Western Conference Finals paved the way for Durant to walk in free agency.
Is it revisionist history to suggest the Thunder would have toppled the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat in the mid-2010s had they retained Harden? Perhaps. But Kevin Martin, who OKC acquired in the Harden trade, lasted just one year with the team before departing as a free agent in 2013. That left the Thunder perilously thin on scoring depth beyond Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Jackson. (The 33-year-old Caron Butler was their fifth-highest scorer in 2013-14.)
With Harden still around, the Thunder may have been able to withstand the injury to Westbrook in the 2014 playoffs. Who knows? Maybe the Thunder would have discovered the same on-ball dominance from Harden that Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni unearthed this past season. That 2013-14 Spurs team was a well-oiled machine hell-bent on revenge against Miami after their devastating collapse in the 2013 NBA Finals, but Harden likewise would have been looking to atone for his no-show in the 2012 Finals.
And how’s this for a thought experiment? Rather than being able to draft Steven Adams 12th overall in 2013 (using one of the first-rounders from the Harden trade), what if the Thunder only had a late-round pick and a glaring hole at center? Would they have attempted to move up a few spots to select Rudy Gobert, Gorgui Dieng or Mason Plumlee? Imagine a starting five of Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Ibaka and Gobert. That’s the stuff of NBA2K dreams.
The Rest of the West
While it’s easy to envision the Big Four Thunder rampaging through the Western Conference across the past half-decade, just imagine how the rest of the league would have been forced to adapt.
The Spurs would have maintained their annual 50-win pace because, well, they’re the Spurs. But what about the Rockets? Had general manager Daryl Morey not landed Harden, would he still be shopping for a superstar? That Houston team had promising role players—including Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Marcus Morris, Patrick Patterson and Chandler Parsons (before his knees exploded)—but it lacked the top-end talent to unify the complementary cast. Without Harden, the Rockets would not have developed into a legitimate title contender over the past few seasons.
From there, the domino effect only escalates. Would Dwight Howard still signed with Houston as a free agent in 2013, or would he have remained with Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers? Would the Memphis Grizzlies, sick of running into the OKC buzzsaw, have blown up their Grit ‘n’ Grind core prior to this past summer? Would DeAndre Jordan recognize his Los Angeles Clippers had no chance of toppling the Thunder and have followed through with his decision to sign with the Dallas Mavericks?
And for the grand finale: What would have happened with the Golden State Warriors?
The Warriors hit their championship stride in 2014-15, as an early-season David Lee injury forced Draymond Green into the starting lineup and permanently changed the franchise’s outlook moving forward. With Green manning the middle, Andre Iguodala locking down opposing wings and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson bombing away from deep at unprecedented rates, Golden State unfurled a small-ball reign of terror that continues to perplex the league today.
Had Harden remained in Oklahoma City, the Thunder may have thwarted the Warriors dynasty.
When the Warriors went to their Death Lineup, OKC could have countered with a five-man unit of Westbrook, Harden, Sefolosha, Durant and Ibaka. Even if Iguodala could slow Durant and Thompson could smother Harden, Sefolosha and Durant could return the favor against Curry and Thompson, respectively. That would have left Green, Iguodala and Harrison Barnes to shoulder more of a scoring load, while OKC could still counter with Westbrook and Ibaka.
No team in the past half-decade was better equipped to topple this Warriors core than the early-2010s Thunder, but the two never clashed. Golden State’s rise to power commenced two years after the Harden trade.
Looking back, it’s inarguable that the Thunder erred in their handling of Harden. Their main prize from the trade, Steven Adams, has become a valuable piece of the organization over the past few seasons, but he won’t ever find himself in any MVP discussions. The same can’t be said of Harden, who put up one of the most statistically dominant seasons in recent memory this past year (only to be overshadowed by his former teammate, Westbrook).
The early-2010s Thunder should thus serve as a cautionary tale for teams which aim to rebuild through the draft. Sure, it’s great to compile a number of high-upside young prospects and underpay them on rookie-scale deals, but at a certain point, the bill becomes due. If an ownership group isn’t ready to pony up and retain that young core—even if it means nudging into luxury-tax territory—it could limit the team’s ceiling or reduce its margin for error.
The Philadelphia 76ers stand out as the obvious next candidate for a Thunder-esque rise, health permitting. With Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and Dario Saric on board, the Sixers appear to have assembled a core that should compete for championships throughout the 2020s. The price tag on this Sixers group will rapidly begin to escalate next summer, though, as Embiid is entering the final year of his rookie-scale contract. If Philadelphia’s ownership is deterred by this summer’s smaller-than-expected salary-cap jump and plays hardball with Embiid or a free-agent target next year, the Sixers could wind up following a similar arc as the Thunder did over the past half-decade.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers will face similarly tough decisions over the coming years, while teams such as the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers must keep the Thunder in mind as they brace themselves to embark upon their own rebuild. While balancing a salary-cap sheet is no easy task, the Harden situation should teach rival teams that there’s no need to trade away a player in the final year of his rookie deal due to concern over eventual luxury-tax payments. The downside of potentially kneecapping your team’s long-term ceiling far outweighs the upside of saving an owner millions of dollars.
Just ask any scorned Thunder fan.