Tramel: OKC Thunder's original sin of James Harden always shadows franchise
Eve took the forbidden fruit, gave it to Adam and you know the rest. Bad News Bares.
But Adam and Eve were fortunate. Wherever they went after leaving the Garden, they were spared the sight of their great sorrow. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil existed only in Eden. No constant reminders of their great demise.
The Thunder is not so lucky. Tuesday begins a fortnight of James Harden. Every other day, the Thunder will try to contain the serpent that never is far from the psyche of this franchise. For the third time since the trade that stopped a state, the Thunder plays Harden’s Rockets in a first-round playoff series.
Call it the Thunder’s original sin.
Eight years ago, Oklahoma City was basketball bliss. Limitless future. Home grown, with young superstars and a young core behind them. The envy of the league. The envy of professional sport.
But in October 2012, Sam Presti traded Harden to Houston for the same reason Eve ate the apple. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
The Thunder had to pay superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, money wasn’t abundant and OKC was stout enough to win without its sixth man. An NBA title somewhere in the future seemed likely with or without Harden.
But eight years later, with no championship banners flying in the 405, and none on the horizon, the trade remains the pivotal decision in franchise history. Russell Westbrook’s meniscus and Kevin Durant’s defection were out of Thunder control. Trading Harden was a self-inflicted wound. Just like Eve.
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The trade was not stupid. Presti made the deal for valid reasons. It just didn’t work out.
The Thunder could have won it all in 2013, then Patrick Beverley happened. The Thunder could have won it all in 2016, then Klay Thompson happened. The trade didn’t seal OKC’s fate.
But the trade’s shadow grows longer with each passing season. Oh, what might have been for this franchise.
Keeping Durant, Westbrook and Harden long-term seemed like a longshot then for financial reasons. Right thought, wrong reason. A long-term Durant-Westbrook-Harden trinity was a longshot for egotistical reasons.
Nobody east of Eden knew how good Harden was, except possibly Harden himself. He wanted his own team. Wanted the ball in his hands and the burden on his shoulders.
No one else foresaw the Harden of 2012 turning into the Harden of recent vintage, averaging 33.7 points per game over the last three seasons. Not even the Rockets.
Yes, Houston wanted Harden badly and showed its commitment by immediately signing the bearded one to a five-year, maximum contract merely days after the trade.
The Rockets played chicken with Presti and won. We’ve always heard the scuttlebutt that the Thunder desired Chandler Parsons in the deal. That poker hand was won by Houston, which eventually sent Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks for Harden. If Houston had any idea Harden would produce Kobe-like production, it wouldn’t have risked the Thunder saying no. Parsons would have been gift-wrapped.
If the Thunder had kept Harden, it could have played out the 2012-13 season, then made a decision. Trading Harden, even to the Rockets, would have been viable in summer 2013. A sign-and-trade would have enticed many suitors, including the Rockets themselves. And though Presti might not have had as much leverage as he did the previous year, he could have had more, if Harden had kept progressing with the warp speed he showed in his three OKC seasons.
Instead, Harden went to Houston a year earlier, with a trade-and-sign. In his first Rocket game, Harden had 12 assists and 37 points on 14-of-25 shooting, and the Rockets had their superstar.
Not long after the trade, NBA revenues soared, the payroll cap expanded and the Thunder’s financial motivation for the trade was gone.
Instead, OKC forged ahead with Martin (who played excellent basketball in his one Thunder season), Lamb (who never rose to more than eighth or ninth man) and draft picks that became Steven Adams, Alex Abrines and Mitch McGary.
McGary didn’t pan out, and Abrines had personal problems that derailed his occasional bright promise. Adams, of course, is a franchise cornerstone, and while Thunder fans lament the loss of Harden, they also want no part of pondering life without the Big Kiwi. Adams is the ultimate consolation prize.
So now comes an NBA bubble series against Houston. The Thunder beat the Rockets in a 2013 six-game series noted for Westbrook’s knee injury, courtesy of the fiery Beverley. The Rockets beat the Thunder in a 2017 six-game series noted for Westbrook’s heroic play after Durant had fled in free agency.
The Harden/Thunder saga never drifts far from the trade. That deal wasn’t the day the music died. The Thunder has continued to be good or great and always is entertaining. But the original sin lingers as the Thunder still seeks its first championship banner.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.