Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka were destined for greatness until they weren’t
The 2011–2012 Oklahoma City Thunder were ready to take on the world. After the lockout ended, the team made it to the finals after finishing 47–19, 2nd in the Western Conference behind the San Antonio Spurs. After sweeping the Dallas Mavericks, crushing the Lakers in five games, and beating those Spurs in six, the original big 4 met the Miami Heat and their big 3. The lights proved to be too bright for the young, first time finals Thunder team who gave LeBron his first NBA Championship.
No one knew how much the Thunder’s big 4 would impact the league in the years to come after their lone finals appearance together.
That 2012 summer showed signs of being the end to their story, James Harden was entering restricted free-agency and the Thunder had a decision to make. Lock up a fourth player on a huge contract, making it difficult to do much else with the roster, or look to trade Harden and get assets in return over him walking away in free agency the following summer.
On October 28th 2012, days before the season began, OKC traded James Harden (and three end of the bench guys) to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks, and a second-round pick. The Thunder felt they had the chance to extend their window so long as they could retool with new assets. Thunder General Manager, Sam Presti’s approach netted his team a veteran scorer (Martin), a young shooter (Lamb), and the first-round picks would hopefully net something (Steven Adams and Mitch McGary). Nothing though acquired by the Thunder in that trade have even come close to Harden, who is now threatening to be in the MVP conversation for the next few years.
Presti took a gamble on the upside of what Serge Ibaka could be and keep some financial flexibility. With a debate over a few million dollars per season, it seems silly now to look back, but let’s keep going.
In the years after Harden, the Thunder posted 55-plus wins in three of four seasons — very successful by an standard. 2012–2013 ended in a five game disaster against the Memphis Grizzlies in the West Semi-finals. 2013–14 they lost to the eventual NBA Champion Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. The following year (2014–15) showed how the wheels can fall off the wagon. Kevin Durant played in 27 games, Westbrook 67 and Ibaka played in 64. The age-26 seasons for Westbrook and Durant (age-25 for Ibaka) showed glaring weaknesses in a team that had nothing outside of its core. Head Coach Scott Brooks was fired and that was strike two for the organization.
Billy Donovan took the reins and led the Thunder to a modest 55–27 record. That was not the most impressive thing the Thunder did that year. They had the 73-win Golden State Warriors in a 3–1 hole in the Western Conference Finals — they were one win away from the Finals, proving all of the Thunder doubters wrong. Alas, they blew a 3–1 lead and well, the NBA changed.
Draft night 2016, the Thunder pulled off a trade to move Serge Ibaka to Toronto to get a new feeling around the team with a big time pending free agent (hint, hint). They added Victor Oladipo and Demontas Sabonnis to try and get younger while keeping their stars happy. But jump ahead a few short weeks and everything would be different.
The Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant. The 73-win team that was on the brink of elimination to Durant’s Thunder, signed the second best player in the world. the super-duper four were now in Oakland California. Curry, Thompson, Green, and now Durant were odds on favorites to win the title and became a villain to those who disliked how the team came together. Just last week, the Warriors capped off their first super team campaign by beating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games.
But let’s imagine Oklahoma City chose to keep everyone together.
OKC signs James Harden to a four-year $55 million deal (which would go into effect for the 2013–2014 season) putting the Thunder over the luxury tax threshold — Side note: the 2013–2014 salary cap was set at $58.7 million with the luxury tax level of $71.7; hence after the Rockets trade, the Thunder had $71.178 million worth of salaries on the books — forcing a small market team to take small margins when they choose to keep Harden.
James Harden’s new contract in OKC forces the franchise to pay the luxury tax for being almost $10 million over the initial threshold. With Harden staying, the Thunder would have cut or moved another salary to get into a lesser penalty ($5–$9.99 million over has a penalty of $1.75 per $1; $10–$14.99 million over has a penalty of $2.50 per $1). In this case, the Thunder would pay just over $14 million in tax that season.
The 2013–14 NBA season looks entirely different. The Thunder potentially beat the eventual NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs in the West Finals.
Ok but now we actually pretend Oklahoma City chose to keep everyone together.
Marv Albert, game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, 50 second left in overtime, “rejected by Ibaka, 3 on 2 for the Thunder…” and then that break is led by Harden instead of Reggie Jackson. Harden scores plus the foul. OKC goes on to win in overtime and they get enough energy from that win that they beat the Spurs in 7.
The rematch between the Thunder and Heat for the 2014 Finals would look completely different. There is no saving grace Ray Allen 3-pointer — we all know that shot. Harden plays more point and Mario Chalmers/Dwayne Wade cannot guard two experienced athletic guards when Westbrook is added into the equation. Durant is two years stronger, Ibaka is two years more experienced as a fourth option as a stretch four.
The OKC Thunder lose the 2014 NBA Championship in seven games to LeBron James (because I can’t take that away from LeBron).
This Thunder team would look in the offseason to move Ibaka to the highest bidder. Could they move him? Maybe. If they move him, they create enough space to sign Pau Gasol and Paul Pierce to the mid-level exception. Other options would include Trevor Ariza, Channing Frye, and Vince Carter, but they would work to get Gasol and Pierce — the veterans they need if Ibaka were to be traded.
The 2014–15 season culminates in the now LeBron (and Andrew Wiggins) led Cleveland Cavaliers playing the Thunder, not the rising Golden State Warriors with newly crowned, first time MVP, Steph Curry. KD, Harden and Westbrook lead OKC to their first NBA Championship with Kevin Durant winning finals MVP. The state of Oklahoma has never partied as hard as they do when this super team brings hardware to the city.
The 2015–16 campaign also looks very different. We are not on 73-win Warrior watch. The Warriors and Thunder meet again in the West Finals, the Warriors win in seven, but LeBron James still fulfills his promise to bring a NBA Championship to Cleveland — it was destiny.
Despite losing to Golden State, Kevin Durant signs a a new 3+1 max deal to stay with the Thunder who now are more likely to move Serge Ibaka. Moving the forward gives Oklahoma City the chance to retool their big four by creating space and acquiring Al Horford, who would take less to join this team.
The 2016–17 season looks completely different. Golden State is the number two team in the conference and the Thunder challenge the 72-win Bulls record but eventually fall short. There is no triple-double watch and there is no streaky Rockets franchise that breaks the NBA 3-point field goal record. The Thunder and Cavs continue their dominance and both teams enter the NBA Finals 12–0. The difference in this series is the tandem of Westbrook and Harden, not Durant. Westbrook overpowers Kyrie and Harden takes J.R. Smith to school. Wiggins has to deal with Westbrook or Roberson guarding him and cannot get going. James and Durant are a wash. The Oklahoma City Thunder win the championship in six games.
What a difference. The Thunder get to three of four NBA Finals and they win two of three championships.
All of the talk surrounding the NBA (back in real life now) has been focused on the Golden State “super team” with their big four. Just imagine for a minute the difference in the conversation we would be having if Sam Presti and Oklahoma City just held onto James Harden. They would have built their “super team” with hand-picked talent without the need to acquire a big named free agent. That has been the only downside to the Warriors current roster — they signed the second best player in the world after having three of the top 15 or 20 players in the league. The Thunder’s big four would have been homegrown and we would be loving it. We would not be complaining to the level most of the world is to Golden State. We would give Sam Presti all the praise for building a team truly from the ground up, and would anoint him as one of the best General Managers ever.
Oklahoma City would be the hottest ticket in the NBA without a doubt. How long could their run have been? We will never know, but with their ‘original’ big-four, the Oklahoma City Thunder could have damn well gone down as this decades dynasty.
This post was originally posted on Medium.com/Section240 by John Amoroso on July 5th, 2017