Oct. 28, 2012: I am sitting in the press box at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium covering the Sooners vs. Notre Dame when all of the sudden a buzz started going around the room.
Almost every sports writer, who was covering one of the biggest non-conference games in college football that season suddenly stopped watching the football game and started watching their computer screens, as they were reading about the blockbuster trade the Oklahoma City Thunder had just pulled off with the Houston Rockets.
James “Fear the Beard” Harden, who was loved by the Oklahoma City fanbase, had just been traded to Houston for Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb.
For most people who knew anything about the situation the Thunder were facing, they weren’t at all surprised about the trade.
The deal also included two first-round picks and a second-round pick from the Rockets and center Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward from the Thunder.
Harden was entering his final year of his rookie contract with the Thunder and it was going to be impossible for OKC to afford the star shooting guard and keep their other All-Stars like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
At the time, the real decision in the Thunder’s mind was between Harden and star power forward Serge Ibaka, who looked like he was going to be a difference maker on both ends of the court for years to come.
The Thunder made their choice to stick with Ibaka instead of Harden and put their faith in their new acquisitions Martin and Lamb to make up for the loss of the bearded one.
There are speculations out there that Harden turned down the initial offer for a contract extension from the Thunder and was determined to leave Oklahoma City because he wanted to be the No. 1 star on the team.
Since that trade, Oklahoma City has not lived up to its expectations after getting to the 2012 NBA Finals with Harden, Durant and Westbook.
The Thunder dealt with numerous injury problems with all three of its stars in the coming years. Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka all had to sit out for extended periods of time and they were not able to re-sign Martin, while Lamb never materialized to what they thought he could be in the NBA.
However, nothing hurt more for the Thunder fanbase than last July when their superstar Kevin Durant decided to vacate Oklahoma City and join the Golden State Warriors, the team who had just come back from a 3-1 Western Conference Finals series deficit to defeat the Thunder in seven games.
Not only was the Durant departure crushing from the standpoint of losing one of the best players in the world to a conference rival, but the timing of it coming late in free agency had left the Thunder with an almost empty cupboard of quality free agents to choose from to try and replace at least some of the hole KD had left behind on his way to California.
This year, Oklahoma City has been the team that most people thought they would be. Westbrook is having a MONSTER year, as he averaged a triple-double and broke the all-time triple-doubles record and is the no-brainer MVP of this league this year.
However, it is now playoff time and this is not the playoffs that Thunder fans have grown accustomed to watching.
OKC just saw its season come to an end in the first-round of the postseason to a Rockets team who has a plethora of fire power on offense, a coach who knows how to coach offensive juggernauts in Mike D’Antoni and of course, they are led by Mr. James Harden himself.
Throughout the series, one question keeps popping into my head, what if the Oklahoma City Thunder had traded Westbrook that year and kept Harden.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been, “Do we keep Harden or Ibaka?”, but instead, “Should we keep Harden or Westbrook?”
Look, I am NOT discounting anything Westbrook has done in Oklahoma City. He has meant a ton to the Thunder and his contributions have been much more than on the basketball court. Westbrook has been a hero for Oklahoma City and we are lucky to be able to call him our own.
However, one needs to examine the question.
If it would have been Westbrook in that trade to Houston or anywhere else that offseason, what would the Thunder look like today?
Would Kevin Durant have stayed? There is no question now that Durant and Westbrook were not exactly the closest of friends. In fact, several people close to KD said the star forward was even sick of putting up with Westbrook’s antics and that was a big reason for his departure out of OKC.
Would have Durant gotten along better with Harden? Maybe, maybe not. No one could know that but if they could have, imagine the dynamic duo that would have been.
The next question is would the Thunder have done more to keep Ibaka instead of trading him? If not, would Oklahoma City have been able to make a push for a player like Chris Paul at some point? If not, would the Thunder have kept Reggie Jackson to play point guard?
This topic raises so many questions and so many “what ifs” that it is hard to imagine what it would really look like in a line-up setting.
Here’s one to think about:
Chris Paul or Reggie Jackson at point guard, James Harden at shooting guard, Kevin Durant at small forward, Serge Ibaka at power forward and Steven Adams at center.
Now I don’t know about you, but that looks like a NBA championship caliber line-up to me.
Westbrook has been and will continue to be a tremendous player and person for the Thunder and Oklahoma City but it sure is interesting to think about if it had been him instead of Harden to exit Oklahoma City on Oct. 28, 2012.