This time four years ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder had four Olympians on its team: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden. Those four Olympians were all under 25 years old. Fresh off of the first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history, the four youngsters were on their way to London to compete in the 2012 Olympic Games. Durant, Russy and Harden played for the United States while Ibaka played for Spain.
Four years later, the Thunder is a shell of what it used to be, and it begins, and ends, with the front office.
This all started back on an otherwise quiet night in 2012 in Norman, Okla., the last Saturday of October. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish rolled into Norman to take on the Oklahoma Sooners in a highly anticipated matchup of two of college football’s most storied powers. The mood at the time was one of excitement above anything else. As someone whose favorite college football team is the Sooners facing a hated one such as Notre Dame, the ingredients were there for an entertaining and action-packed Saturday night.
Then, the ESPN Ticker message came across that changed it all. What was supposed to be a Saturday of simply enjoying college football turned into a disaster. The message read: “Oklahoma City to trade James Harden to the Houston Rockets for …”
It didn’t matter whom the Thunder was trading James Harden for. The fact that OKC was trading him was enough, and the mood went from one of being stunned to immediate and furious anger. The only person to talk at, because I was in absolutely no mood to listen, was Eduardo Maisonet, the biggest and most loyal Oklahoma City Thunder fan around. It should have been a time when he was allowed to vent since the trade detonated his team, but he wasn’t given much of a chance. We both relished that OKC built its team through the draft, and it was a sight to see. In 2007, the team formerly known as the Seattle SuperSonics drafted Kevin Durant. One year later, in 2008, the franchise drafted Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, and the following season, in 2009, it drafted James Harden.
As a fan of college basketball, it was awesome, and rare, to see a team stumble upon such great fortune and build so successfully through the draft. Being at Game 6 of the first round of the 2010 NBA Playoffs was one of the most memorable experiences as an NBA fan one can have. Even though OKC lost to the Los Angeles Lakers and lost the series that night, one could tell that brighter days were coming. The next season, the Thunder advanced to the Western Conference Finals, where Durant, Westbrook and company lost to the Dallas Mavericks, but even then, one could see that their time was coming.
The next season, the Oklahoma City Thunder made the NBA Finals. OKC killed the Mavs and the Lakers on the way there, extinguishing the two previous champions of the NBA universe. Awaiting the Thunder was a Miami Heat team that also looked to exercise some demons from the previous season when it lost to the Mavericks in the NBA Finals. The Thunder went on to lose the NBA Finals in five games. Even then, it seemed like OKC was right there — all the team needed was one more breakthrough, one more season together and these immensely talented players would hoist a title above their heads. They were learning how to succeed together and how to fail together. It was only a matter of time before the stars aligned and everything came together.
However, the next chance never came. Before the Thunder had the chance to go into the 2012-2013 season, before the powers that be gave themselves a chance to roll out a team with FOUR Olympians in the previous London Olympics with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden, the Oklahoma City Thunder did the most irresponsible thing an organization can do. The front office destroyed the chemistry and what made these players the most organic basketball franchise since the early ’90s Orlando Magic.
By trading James Harden when they absolutely didn’t have to, the decision was made to choose the bottom line over winning when the bottom line was supposed to be winning. A situation like Oklahoma City had with four Olympians on its roster, all four nowhere near their primes and all drafted by the team, is something that should not be toyed with. That level of chemistry, that sense of magic and the scent of something organic cannot be replicated. Once that trade was made, and made in the midst of the Notre Dame/Oklahoma college football game where sports fans in the state were already in a state of hysteria due to the game in Norman, it was the beginning of the end.
Maybe the Thunder players realized that the folks who ran the team weren’t prepared to do everything it took to win, especially when the “everything” involved taking care of their own. That trade was the definition of irresponsible, and it’s no coincidence that the Thunder hasn’t been back to the Finals since. Sure, OKC made the playoffs a few times, and the team even made the conference finals in 2014 and 2016. While those runs suspended belief that the franchise wasn’t doomed, the Oklahoma City Thunder was dead meat when it traded James Harden. Sure, the most recent group went up 3-1 on the Warriors in the 2016 conference finals, but the viewing public saw how that turned out, and while some people point to the Lil’ B Curse, it will always go back to the last Saturday night in October of 2012.
As a fan, there are things we seen in sports that make no sense. The Giants beating the 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl, the Cavs beating the Warriors after being down 3-1 in the 2016 NBA Finals, the late Diego Corrales coming back to defeat Jose Luis Castillo in the 10th round. There are countless more, and even when fans watch the nonsensical happen in real time, it can still be hard to explain. This isn’t hard to explain. When the Thunder traded James Harden in 2012, it gave up something that can be hard to put into words, yet something that is easy to understand once it’s seen with a pair of eyes.
With that, watching Kevin Durant leave Oklahoma City makes perfect sense. Yes, it’s a little wack that he’s going to the team that just came back from 3-1 to beat the team he was on before, but that Thunder team was doomed from the night of October of 2012 anyway. The house is burning, but there shouldn’t be any KD jerseys going up in those flames. The only entity that should be put on the Summer Jam Screen in Oklahoma City is the Thunder front office. It didn’t have to end this way, and it’s no one’s fault but their own that it did.