What if James Harden was still with the Oklahoma City Thunder?

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Hindsight is a wonderful thing. We can think back on the bad decisions that we made and figure out what we could have done better in a particular situation. Too bad we can’t go back in time and do anything about it. But still, it’s nice to reflect. 

Then again, what if we could go back and do something about it? Like putting that bet on that you had a gut feeling about. Or starting that piece of work you’ve been avoiding and now you have way too little time to get done. We all have something we regret.

And for NBA front office staff it is exactly the same. They all have that one trade deal they regret pulling the trigger on (or not in some cases), or the draft pick they let slip through their fingers or the one they actually selected and turned into a huge bust. But if they could go back and change it, how would things have panned out?

Sure he may not admit, but deep down Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti surely regrets trading away James Harden after the two sides failed to meet each other’s financial expectation. 

The Backstory

OKC offered four years in a deal in worth $55.5 million in hopes of avoiding the luxury tax. However, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year (at the time) turned it down as it was $4.5 million short of the max deal he so highly coveted.

Alas they couldn’t find a way to sort their difference and Harden was sent off to Houston in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick. The first round pick turned out to be Steven Adams and the second-rounder, Alex Abrines in 2013.

The other first-round pick belonged to the Dallas Mavericks and was a top-20 protected pick through 2017, but they finished with a top-10 record in 2013-14, meaning the Thunder got the 21st pick in this year’s draft and came away with Mitch McGary.

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How it panned out for Harden…

For Harden the trade worked out great. He ended up getting the max deal he so badly wanted as Houston gave him a five-year $80million contract, plus he is now widely recognised as superstar in the NBA.

He has become an All-Star and is arguably becoming the best shooting guard in the game having averaged nearly 26 points, six assists and five rebounds during his two years with the Rockets.

Such numbers have helped him finish in the top 10 in the Most Valuable Player voting, and it’s why he is the go to guy on a team that is a bona fide NBA Championship contender, following the addition of Dwight Howard.

Had he stayed with the Thunder, he would still be in the shadows behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Granted we now know just how bad his defense is, but the move has worked out great for him.

How it panned out for OKC…

Meanwhile in Oklahoma City, Martin (the man who was supposed to be a direct replacement for Harden) is now with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Lamb has shown glimpses of being able to assume the mantle but coach Scott Brooks doesn’t seem to believe he is quite ready yet.

Steven Adams will likely get a bigger role next year after a good rookie season – besides, Kendrick Perkins hasn’t been much of a factor lately. McGary has shown some promise thus far having impressed during the Summer League including an 18 points and 13 rebounds performance. However Abrines is yet to come over from F.C. Barcelona.

Overall, the Thunder have some good pieces for the future and they are doing great in the interim after finishing with the second best overall record in the NBA. Serge Ibaka has continued to develop his offensive game. As a result, he has been able to assume the role of being the third scoring option.

Westbrook is one the best point guards in the NBA and Durant finally managed to pip LeBron James for the MVP award.

What could have been…

The Beard has had great individual success but he hasn’t been able to get out of the first round in the NBA Playoffs with the Rockets. While it was understandable in 2012-12 considering it was a weaker team, this past season they, though, Howard was on board and Chandler Parsons was playing great basketball. Yet still they lost out to a team led by Damian Lillard, who was experiencing his first taste of playoffs basketball.

As for OKC, they were strong favourites heading into the post season… until they ran into a San Antonio Spurs team that was nowhere near their historic finals form. But due to a lack of creativity in calling offensive sets, and quite frankly a lack of production, they were sent packing. 

Most of the time, Coach Brooks essentially handed Durant or Westbrook the ball and said: “Go make something happen.” Moreover, players like Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collins and Perkins were almost non-existent during the series, while Ibaka wasn’t completely 100 percent – although it’s hard to imagine what he could have done help offensively because he isn’t always reliable on that end of the floor. Simply put, a two man plan of attack against a high caliber team like the Spurs, was bound to fail.

Let’s imagine what could have been had Presti decided to pony up and pay the man, or had Harden accepted the offer. Imagine if Harden was still providing the scoring in bunches off the Oklahoma City Thunder bench; with such fire power, most team would be powerless when trying to stop them.

To put it into context: In 2011-12, when the Westbrook-Harden-Durant-Ibaka quartet put up 114.7 points per 100 possessions while on the court together. Over the course of a season, that would’ve been good enough to place them among the NBA's 10 best offenses ever.

Now picture what a 25-year-old Durant fresh off his first MVP award, a more mature 25-year-old Westbrook, a 24-year old Ibaka with incredible shooting range and a 24-year-old Harden who finished fifth in scoring in each of the last two seasons, would do. That combination of players would be damn-near impossible to stop and the Oklahoma City Thunder would be NBA Champions by now.

At the very least they would have been back to the finals already.

As for the Houston Rockets, GM Daryl Morey would probably still be making small moves in the trade market in order to reel in a superstar to be the man in the franchise.

Oklahoma City Thunder
Houston Rockets
Kevin Durant

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