It has become a common refrain revolving around a suddenly disappointing Oklahoma City playoff run, something of a go-to move once the head-shaking and the Perk-wringing ceases:
“Poor Kevin Durant had to do everything without Russell Westbrook and James Harden”.
At its very core, the statement is factually accurate. The load thrust upon Durant during this postseason was monstrous, and eventually led to his downfall at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies. But it is also partially borne out of a sentiment that is 6 months out of date. Yes, Westbrook’s absence has been a humongous blow to the Thunder’s title chances, as injuries to top 10 players worldwide are wont to do. But the absence of Harden hurts the Thunder just as much as the absence of prime Hakeem Olajuwon hurts the Thunder – both of them would help, both of them wear Rockets jerseys instead, and we should move on.
Criticism of the Harden trade is hardly new. It has been a prominent thread upon the NBA discussion spool since Sam Presti and Daryl Morey shocked NBA observers three days before the start of the regular season, will likely remain such until Kevin Durant raises Oklahoma City’s inaugural NBA championship, and even then, may return if Houston matches with a Larry O’Brien of their own. All-world contributors rarely get traded by contenders; whether Presti knew that Harden is such a player or not, willingly declining to retain his services for the following decade is a historical outlier. Morey, for his part, gambled on Harden being this sort of player, and is now watching his creation pay off in the form of long-term relevance.
My issue with the Harden talk, however, stems from what is either a conceptual misunderstanding or wilful ignorance of what the trade was supposed to accomplish.
I don’t think there is a single soul who thinks this team wouldn’t have been better had The Bearded One been there to come off the bench instead of Kevin Martin (who, to be fair, had a decent if inconsistent playoff run). This includes Sam Presti. Trading Harden wasn’t done with this season in mind – otherwise, Presti wouldn’t have gone for a trade that includes only one rotation player in Martin and three long-term prospects in Jeremy Lamb and two future first round picks. Rather, the idea behind the Harden trade was a wager that the Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka core was enough to contend long-term to allow a Harden sacrifice of sorts in the name of financial and roster flexibility.
Was that idea misguided? Common logic dictates that once a title is within your grasp, an immediate full-on pursuit is the only reasonable plan. The NBA becomes volatile once timelines are stretched to multiple years, with multiple future dynasties having dissolved before they’ve even managed their initial ascension over the course history. Within said prism, Presti’s decision is a too-cute attempt to juggle both immediate and future fruit.
That said, Oklahoma City’s regular season performance indicates that this current core, even Harden-less, is indeed title-caliber. The Thunder blew the league away in average margin of victory, which has a strong correlation with playoff success, and matched their typically potent offense with their first top 5 defensive outfit of the Kevin Durant era. By all accounts, this team was a major Miami-shaped hurdle away from the title, and that hurdle was possible, if not probable, for a clearing.
If this seems like a long-winded attempt to make the story about the Westbrook injury, well, it is. Russ is just too big a variable to presciently dissect any other part of this current’s team makeup. While the stagnant offense and the Scott Brooks question (and, as a byproduct, the Kendrick Perkins/Derek Fisher questions) are concerns, confidently stating that they would or would not ultimately be the downfall of this squad with Westbrook’s meniscus remaining intact are but speculation. As is the baseless claim that had the team both kept Harden and seen the same Westbrook injury (though, without Harden, the Rockets never make the playoffs and Patrick Beverley can’t run into Russ, but then again, without Harden maybe the Rockets never sign Beverley in the first place and instead he signs with the Utah Jazz who would have surely been the 8th seed with the Rockets out of the picture, except, there was no Harden trade, right, so I bet the Mavericks would have traded for Kevin Martin instead, and they really needed more scoring, so with Martin I bet they make the 8th seed and they don’t have Beverley and oh no I’ve gone cross-eyed).
Moving Harden did not doom this title run. It lowered the odds in the name of the future. The question, then, is not whether Sam Presti’s long-term trade was, indeed, a long-term improvement. And while it’s not looking good, it’s impossible to say so early on. Yes, Jeremy Lamb did not impress in his rookie season… but the point guard who just sunk the Thunder, Mike Conley, was a bust three years in. Yes, Harden is a franchise player any way you try to analyze his game, but those touches and that stature were unavailable in Oklahoma City, and it’s impossible know how he would have developed with those restrictions. Yes, the pick OKC will get from Toronto will probably be in the lower teams of a terrible draft… but good players emerge from such spots every now and then, much like Serge Ibaka (24th, 2008) or Reggie Jackson (24th, 2011) have for these exact same Thunder. And with the exception of one Cole Aldrich, Presti’s drafting acumen has been proven almost every time he’s stepped to the plate.
I personally don’t think it was a good move – Harden is too good, and that team was too special, with three young stars growing and bursting upon the stage together – but I also don’t know how the future pans out. Presti has somehow backed himself from being a leaguewide golden boy to having somewhat of a burden of proof, but he’s done an excellent job before, and will probably make good moves again. Pointing to the Harden trade as the move that dismantled the team of the 2010s when the Thunder have neither seized hold of the decade nor lost their grip on it is premature.