A decade after Oklahoma City traded James Harden on the eve of the 2012-13 regular season, it still stands as an atrocity upon the art of dynasty-building. As the central players involved in that deal wind down their Hall of Fame careers in bleak situations, there is no more denying it, Oklahoma City trading Harden was the most detrimental trade an organization has made in NBA history.
Fresh off their 2012 NBA Finals loss to the Miami Heat, Thunder executives were encouraged by their progress. Each of their four headliners was 24 or younger, including their defensive plug Serge Ibaka. However, Harden’s poor performance in the Finals series against Miami and the financial status of the Thunder left the organization sheepish on offering a massive extension to him. After General Manager Sam Presti offered a four-year $48 million deal to Serge Ibaka, Harden rejected a team-friendly four-year, $52 million extension knowing that in 2013 he could demand a max contract as a restricted free agent.
Instead of embarking on another title chase with Harden, Presti took drastic measures. On Oct. 27, Presti pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Harden and roster flotsam to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks, and a second-round pick. Oklahoma City has been dealing with the consequences ever since. The Thunder remained contenders in the West, but once Harden was traded, the Thunder’s ceiling was considerably lower. Juggernaut potential was gone.
Harden existed as a buffer between the pro-Westbrook and pro-Durant camps. With him gone, Westbrook morphed into a live wire within the offense. He repeatedly led the league in turnovers, attempted more shots per game than Durant, and performed the distribution duties that are expected of point guards. That dynamic allowed the “Whose team is it?” debates to take off. The uneasiness between Westbrook and Durant continued until the latter departed Oklahoma City for Golden State.
In the decade since Harden was traded, it’s become apparent that they were in each other’s way. Harden, Westbrook, and Durant have each been named league MVP, but they weren’t built to share the limelight together. Durant was awarded the 2013 MVP during a season in which Westbrook was only healthy enough for 46 games, while Westbrook’s lone MVP arrived in Oklahoma City’s inaugural post-KD season.
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’s than Michael Jordan’s. 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 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.