The 2018-19 season has been a historic one for James Harden, who has been on an offensive tear for nearly two months and counting. Ditto for Russell Westbrook, whose triple-double exploits are still impressive, even without as much fanfare. Let’s not forget Kevin Durant, who continues to play at a high level, as the defending champion Golden State Warriors reap the benefits of having his talents around.
It’s still amazing to think that the Oklahoma City Thunder had all three of these players on the roster in the not-so-distant past. Imagine if they still played together?
The Thunder Core
In 2012, the star trio brought the Thunder to the NBA Finals, but they suffered a 4-1 loss at the hands of LeBron James’ Miami Heat. Many believed that the core of the team was built for more Finals appearances in the future and would eventually win championships down the line.
Unfortunately for Thunder fans, the team would never be the same after Harden was traded to become the franchise player of the Houston Rockets that summer, leaving Westbrook and Durant (don’t forget about Serge Ibaka) to fend for themselves in OKC. Eventually, Durant left in 2016 to join the Warriors, leaving Westbrook as the only one remaining of that trio from the Finals team.
Had Thunder management, led by GM Sam Presti, kept the core of the team intact, they would have been a powerhouse to rival the Warriors. Heck, we might not even be talking about Golden State as a dynasty right now with Westbrook, Harden and Durant still wearing the same uniform. This dynamic trio has been responsible for taking home three of the last five Most Valuable Player awards, not to mention winning more than a few scoring titles along the way:
So OKC drafted 3 MVPs that have also combined to win 7 of the last 9 scoring titles.
— SportsTalkFeed (@SportsTalkFeed) June 26, 2018
Kevin Durant, James Harden Interviews After 2012 NBA Finals
Andrew Kennedy over at Thunderous Intentions culled together interview snippets from exit interviews of OKC players following the conclusion of the 2012 Finals. These were tweeted out by Darnell Mayberry and Royce Young, and they reveal how much the three stars loved playing together.
Regarding a potential Bird-Magic-esque rivalry against LeBron and the Heat, Durant expressed his excitement at the idea, but he also commented on keeping the core of the team intact for that to happen:
“Well I hope so,” Durant said about the above-mentioned rivalry. “I would enjoy that.”
“We don’t have to make any major changes,” he added. “We don’t have to get a whole new team in here. We just have to stick to what we’ve been doing. We wanted this one. We never accepted us being too young or us waiting our turn.”
Harden was asked whether “money or team success was more important,” and this was his response:
“This is something special here. A dynasty is being built here. We’re winning, we’re having fun and we’re brothers. The other stuff, you can’t buy it.”
“I love it here,” he said when asked about impending contract negotiations in the offseason. “I’m just leaving it up to my agent and Sam (Presti). They’ll do a pretty good job of working it out. I’m focused on several other things right now. But when the time is (right), they’ll figure it out and it’ll be done.”
Unfortunately, Harden and management never found equal footing in negotiations, and he (along with others) was subsequently traded to the Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks (Steven Adams in 2013 and Mitch McGary in 2014), and a second-round pick (Álex Abrines in 2013). Adams has since become a key player for OKC, but as valuable as he is, he is nowhere near Harden’s value.
Russell Westbrook: 21.2 points, 11.1 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 2.2 steals
James Harden: 36.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 2.2 steals, 37.4 percent 3-PT FGs, 87.1 percent FTs
Kevin Durant: 27.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.1 blocks, 51.6 percent FGs, 36.7 percent 3-PT FGs, 89.3 percent FTs
Looking at these stats, it’s hard not to feel bad for OKC. They had all the talent in the world at their fingertips, talent that any franchise in the league would be envious of. But the failed contract negotiations with Harden resulted in the momentous trade, which will be debated for some time. While Serge Ibaka got a new contract and the Thunder had some success post-Harden trade, they still haven’t returned to the Finals.
The Consequences of Playing Together
Let’s pretend that these three are still playing for OKC.
Each of them would have lower stats this season, with Harden significantly affected by having two other 20-point scorers alongside him. Durant would still score around 25 points a night as the go-to scorer, while Westbrook would have a smaller overall load, which would likely help his efficiency.
Though it’s doubtful Harden would become an MVP if he had stayed in Oklahoma City with Durant and Westbrook hogging most of the limelight, he would have made up for his no-show in 2012 with stronger performances the next few times they reached the Finals. Harden won Sixth Man of the Year in 2012, but he probably would have been moved to the starting lineup if he stayed.
Durant may have still won his MVP, but being on a superteam would have diminished his case. Westbrook’s case is even trickier given he won his MVP thanks to putting up an absurd triple-double average, but he wouldn’t have put up such historic numbers with KD and Harden around.
Even so, the rings on their fingers would make up for whatever may be missing from their individual hardware.
How Many Championships Could They Have Won?
If the Thunder kept Harden and Durant, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that they would have a couple of championships by now and would be gunning for another one this June.
A look at the Western and Eastern Conference finalists since 2013 reveals that it’s not hard to envision the Thunder winning more than once:
2018 Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (Champion: Warriors)
2017 Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (Champion: Warriors)
2016 Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (Champion: Cavaliers)
2015 Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (Champion: Warriors)
2014 San Antonio Spurs vs. Miami Heat (Champion: Spurs)
2013 San Antonio Spurs vs. Miami Heat (Champion: Heat)
With the three stars in a blue uniform, it’s pretty safe to say that they could have kept the Spurs and Warriors from reaching the Finals a few times. The 2013 Heat had a 27-game win streak and were rolling that season. The Thunder would still be too young to consider them as favorites to win that Finals series rematch.
After that, though, OKC would have had the talent and experience to go on a dynastic run. The Thunder would have had a good chance to win in 2014 and 2015, and with Harden around, finishing off the historic Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals seems likely.
In short, I think the Thunder would have been champions from 2015 to 2018 and would be looking to add another title this year. That’s right: Westbrook, Harden and Durant would have been the first team to win four straight championships since the Boston Celtics of the 1960s won eight consecutive titles.
Unfortunately, we can only dream of this scenario as the Warriors have taken over instead. Reality is a bitter pill to swallow for OKC, and it is especially so for the players themselves who know how good it was when they played together. Harden told GQ’s Devin Gordon that he still thinks about that team all the time:
“It was the perfect puzzle,” he tells me, reliving the end for the thousandth time. “How do you give that up? How do you let that go?”
The Thunder have rebounded nicely after the departures of Harden and Durant, but failing to win a title with that core and seeing it break up prematurely still stings to this day.