The Oklahoma City Thunder Are Now The NBA’s Biggest What-If Team

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Sooner or later some clever bugger is going to write the definitive history of the first eleven years of the Oklahoma City Thunder and it’s going to be essential reading. Since the franchise upped and moved from Seattle, a controversial move then and now, they’ve remained one of the most fascinating teams out there despite the whole small market complication… and it all comes down to three straight draft picks: Kevin Durant was rookie of the year in their final season in Seattle after being picked second overall in 2007. Russell Westbrook was taken fourth overall in 2008 ahead of the inaugural season in OKC. James Harden was then picked third overall in 2009. Each of them would go on to win an MVP trophy during the following decade (two with OKC, one without).

That trio of fellas took them into the playoffs their first year together, more than doubling their win total from that first season in Oklahoma. One year later they were in the Western Conference finals where they fell 4-1 to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks. One further year later they swept the Mavs in the first round and went on to defeat the Lakers and Spurs before falling to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. The pain of that defeat was lessened by the youth and promise of that Thunder team… yet things don’t always unfold the way they’re expected to. In fact they almost never do. In the seven subsequent seasons the Thunder have won only five playoff series and none since 2015-16. Times change quickly in the NBA and with OKC now embarking on their first genuine rebuild since the franchise went from Sonics to Thunder, with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn and James Harden and Russell Westbrook in Houston… the Oklahoma City Thunder of the last decade now feels like one of the great what-if teams in NBA history.

After losing to the Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals it felt like a matter of time until this youthful future dynasty had a championship. Kevin Durant was already looking like an elite level player before he’d turned 24 while Russell Westbrook (23) and James Harden (22) were even younger. And it wasn’t just them, this was the second youngest NBA Finals team in history with only three players who’d experienced that stage before (Derek Fisher, Nazr Mohammed, and Kendrick Perkins)… but on the back of 36 points from Kevin Durant they took game one at home just to get people fizzing.

It wasn’t meant to be though. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade led the Miami Heat to the next four games in a row for a pretty comfortable Finals victory… and LeBron’s first title. The Big Three Era Heat had had to lose one the year before in order to win one. The Oklahoma City Thunder would just have to do the same… right?

WHAT IF THE JAMES HARDEN TRADE NEVER HAPPENED?

And yet as things worked out they wouldn’t even get one more swing at it with that trio. While the Thunder were able to get Serge Ibaka to re-sign for four more years (and $48m) in that offseason, negotiations stalled with James Harden. An offer of 4yrs/$52m was on the table but Harden rejected it, demanding a max instead. At this point in time The Beard had only started seven games in his three NBA seasons and his preference was for that max contract to come with a starting gig too. But a max contract would have forced the Thunder into the luxury tax which was something they didn’t want to have to deal with, not even to keep the reigning Sixth Man of the Year. With the two parties unable to bridge the gap between each other the decision was made to explore a trade and mere days before the new season was scheduled to begin… Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets.

The Rockets got James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook, and Lazar Hayward. The Thunder got Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two 2013 first rounders, and a second round pick. Those picks eventually became Steven Adams, Alex Abrines, and Mitch McGary.

This is the major what-if of all of them: What if they’d paid Harden the max and kept the band together? Sam Presti has always been a decisive GM and in fairness he came out of this with a pretty big haul – Martin and Lamb were players that didn’t quite live up to it in OKC (Martin left in free agency a year later) but they were solid pieces along with a pair of first round picks. The big drama is that they didn’t have to move so quickly. They could have let the season play out, see how far they could take it, then do their best to convince Harden to take a little less money or move some other pieces around to clear some space to match the max offers he was destined to receive in restricted free agency. But they didn’t and they chose to trade him. It was a deal that shocked people at first and soon that shock turned into outright criticism as Harden immediately blossomed into an All-NBA player in Houston – he scored a combined 82 points in his first two games for the Rockets and has been an All Star every year since.

You have to remember that they knew Harden was good but they couldn’t have known he was that good when they traded him. And as the assets they acquired in return slowly faded out the haul they got now looks pretty mud too. Steven Adams is the only player left from that group. Still, this is the big turning point for the Thunder. A fork in the road where they turned left instead of right and have been wondering ever since about the road not taken.

Having said that, even without Harden they still won 60 games that season for the top seed in the Western Conference and they beat none other than Harden’s Rockets 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs. That series came at a cost though, with Russell Westbrook injured in a game two collision with Patrick Beverley that would eventually rule him out for the rest of the season. OKC lost 4-1 to Memphis in the second round and that injury to Westbrook became another what-if… Thunder fans still haven’t forgiven Patrick Beverley.

WHAT IF THEY’D HAD SOME BETTER ROLE PLAYERS?

The 2013-14 season was one season where things actually worked out really well. The Thunder won 59 games for second place in the West, getting some nice minutes out of a rookie Steven Adams just quietly… but most of all they relied upon an MVP campaign from Kevin Durant (although his mum was the real MVP, remember). Russell Westbrook missed the first chunk of the season as he recovered from the knee injury he suffered in the previous playoffs but he was back in business before things got proper serious and OKC were able to fight back from 3-2 down on the brink of elimination to beat the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round (Zach Randolph’s suspension for striking Steven Adams didn’t help the Grizz there) before they dropped the LA Clippers (Lob City, baby) in six. However the San Antonio Spurs were just too good in the conference finals. Too good and too clever and too experienced and too well drilled. The Spurs went on to beat the Miami Heat in the finals.

But this was also one of the first times when a recurring OKC problem reared its head. By the time the playoffs came around they knew what they were doing with their starters: Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka, and Perkins. Problem there being that they only really had one shooter: Durant. Caron Butler and Reggie Jackson were able to come in off the bench and hit some shots and that was about it. Adams and Collison weren’t offensive weapons at those contrasting stages of their careers. Derek Fisher was 39 years old and washed. It was a good unit but one that relied too much on its best players and you have to wonder what one more creative option on the bench (or starting in place of Sefolosha) might have meant.

WHAT IF IT WEREN’T FOR THE INJURIES?

As long as this team had KD and Russ they were going to be contending, but the 2014-15 season was yet another where the gods were against them. Durant came into the season with a broken foot and would miss the first seventeen games, while Westbrook also broke his hand and missed 14 of those games – they were 5-12 when they first had both of them on the court at once. They quickly made up for lost time with a cheeky winning streak but Durant dealt with ankle and toe injuries during December and January before going into surgery in late February to deal with a loose screw in his surgically repaired foot. One month later it was confirmed that he’d miss the rest of the season. He played just 27 games that campaign. Meanwhile Westbrook did his best to carry the team and he got them to a 45-37 record in the end… but that was agonisingly short of the playoffs, missing out on the eighth seed to the New Orleans Pelicans by tiebreaker. It remains the only time they’ve missed the playoffs in the decade since James Harden was drafted.

This was the season they traded for Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter. It was also the season that the Golden State Warriors won 67 games and their first NBA championship of their impending dynasty... one which would have a lot to do with the Thunder in the coming years.

WHAT IF THEY HADN’T BLOWN THE ORIGINAL 3-1 LEAD?

The Warriors infamously blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals of 2015-16, one of the most memorable finals series in the history of the league. LeBron James brought a championship back to Cleveland just as he promised he would and he did it the hard way as his Cavs won three straight elimination games to make it happen, the cherry on top being that legendary chase-down block.

But before that could happen the Warriors had already done the same in the Western Conference finals against a Thunder team that had been absolutely sizzling. Billy Donovan was in his first year coaching the team after Scott Brooks was sacked for missing the playoffs (a bit harsh but he’d always been under pressure with this OKC team and their fans). Billy D’s team won 55 games on their way to a third seed and come playoffs time they comfortably dealt with the Dallas Mavericks in five games before ending Tim Duncan’s career with a 4-2 victory over the San Antonio Spurs in the following round. Next up they took on the 73-win Warriors, a new NBA season record, who just happened to be the defending champs as well.

This playoffs run was where Steven Adams made his name as a legit player in the NBA and he sure had an eventful time against the Warriors, getting kicked in the nuts twice by Draymond Green (who also tripped Kanter up in game four but wouldn’t be suspended until he did it to LeBron James in the finals… which proved a decisive moment in the whole season). OKC won game one in California on the back of a fantastic defensive fourth quarter (GSW had only lost twice at home all season) but were blown out in the second half of game two. However big wins in games three and four had them on the brink of a magical upset. Durant then dropped 40 points in game five… but the Warriors squeezed out the win.

That still gave OKC a closeout game six at home except nobody told Klay Thompson what was supposed to happen. He hit 11 triples on the way to an incredible 41 points – 19 of those points in the fourth quarter as a lead that OKC had carried most of the way slowly seeped through their fingers. Steph Curry tied the game with less than three minutes remaining. Andre Roberson and Andre Iguodala traded buckets before a Thompson triple made it 104-101 to GSW with 1:35 left on the clock. It was the final lead change. OKC had five turnovers and a missed three in the final two minutes and we were all tied going into a game seven.

How’d that one go? Pretty well for the first half, as OKC put the clamps on to be leading by as many as 13 points midway through the second quarter. But a rubbish third quarter – which was always when the Warriors were at their most dangerous – saw things quickly disappear. Down 11 going into the final quarter, Kevin Durant did his best to make a game of it (getting within four points with 1:40 remaining) but Steph Curry iced it at the free throw line and then the three-point line and it was all over. What might have been? Harrison Barnes is on record as saying that Thunder team was the toughest he faced as a Warrior. He’s not alone in thinking that either. But they weren’t quite able to seal the deal when they had the chance and it was a chance they’d never get again. Four Western Conference finals (and one NBA Finals) in six years… they haven’t won a playoff series since.

WHAT IF KEVIN DURANT HADN’T LEFT IN FREE AGENCY?

Then the unthinkable happened. Not only did Kevin Durant choose to leave the Thunder in free agency but he left to join their rivals from Golden State, the team that they had so narrowly lost to in the conference finals. Massively strengthening their biggest challengers in the west whilst seriously diminishing OKC’s own hopes. The Harden Trade is the one people look back on the most because that was perceived as the organisation’s fault for letting him leave whereas the heat for this decision all fell on KD… but this was where the championship window closed for the Thunder.

With Durant, the Warriors were close to unbeatable. A 73-win team added an MVP level guy and, what do ya know, they then won the next two championships and in a curious blend of belated karmic rebalancing they were prevented from the three-peat by injuries to KD and Klay (as well as some supreme Toronto Raptors basketball) before KD decided to leave in free agency. What goes around, comes around, as they say… although it doesn’t pack as much of a punch when GSW still won back to back championships with him while OKC are left all these years later with one mere Western Conference title.

WHAT IF PAUL GEORGE’S SHOULDERS HAD HELD UP?

Russell Westbrook didn’t leave. He could have left when Durant did but instead he re-signed and went on to win the MVP, averaging a triple-double over the course of the entire season for the next three seasons in a row. Utterly insane… but they were also knocked out in the first round of the playoffs those three seasons in a row. The Rockets, the Jazz, and then the Trail Blazers. OKC going 4-12 in those three series.

Hey but you know what? They weren’t without their chances. The second year they added Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in a couple blockbuster trades. Melo didn’t do much that was overly useful but Paul George was immense… until his shooting fell off a cliff after the All Star break. PG shot 2/16 in the elimination game against Utah while Russ scored 46 points on 43 shots. It wasn’t pretty basketball, that’s for sure. But up until Andre Roberson was injured midseason they did have one of the fiercest defences in the league and with him to stop Donovan Mitchell you never know. Paul George then responded with a campaign that got him into the MVP conversation (after Melo was traded to Houston)… but injuries down the stretch to both of his shoulders meant he wasn’t able to be as effective as he would have been and the deep shooting of Damian Lillard was otherwise unstoppable in the 2018-19 playoffs.

These little factors happen to every team, the Thunder aren’t alone in feeling like fate was working against them. But there aren’t too many teams can be this close for a full decade and have as little to show for it… other than the memories, of course. Compare that to the Toronto Raptors who just gave themselves a one-year championship window and they took that trophy all the way to the bank.

WHAT IT THE PAUL GEORGE TRADE HADN’T HAPPENED?

Which brings us basically to the current day and while there was huge media yarning about the Thunder’s need to break it up and start again, OKC were pretty confident that if dudes were healthy then the same crew could make a dent in the playoffs. Having said that, Presti’s old mate the luxury tax was beginning to call his name again in dreams and there were heavy rumours that they were looking to trade some salary to ease those dramas.

Then the bad stuff happened. Kawhi Leonard had been tossing up between the Lakers, Raptors, and Clippers in free agency and somewhere along the way he buzzed PG about maybe joining him in LA, George’s home town. Well, Paul George figured that was a great idea and he let the Thunder organisation know, who then traded him for bundles of draft picks to the Clippers where Leonard subsequently signed as well. So much for running it back.  

At that point their contending hopes were gone, which made Russell Westbrook a little tetchy so they traded him and his enormous contract to the Houston Rockets (to reunite with James Harden) for Chris Paul and his enormous contract. The last chance for a championship through this era of Oklahoma City basketball was gone. We now move into a new era, a fresh era, a bittersweet era of rebuilding and reshaping. And era known as… The Steven Adams Era.

But that’s a story for another day.

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