It begins as it should.
The Thunder’s fourth voyage into the up and down jungle known as the NBA Playoffs begins with James Harden. It’s appropriate. The only thing more appropriate is if the Rockets somehow switched conferences before the season then made a surprising run to the Finals where the Thunder then faced Harden as their final hurdle toward winning an NBA title.
It’s fitting though it starts with Harden because he’s going to define the Thunder’s 2012-13 season one way or the other. Even if the Rockets don’t beat the them in this opening round, Harden can still beat the Thunder. Because unless Oklahoma City’s season ends with a win, Harden’s absence will be the focus. He’s cast a shadow over this season, and it’s one that will forever hover unless the Thunder raise a banner.
For the most part, the Thunder have put to bed the noise surrounding that shocking night in late October. By winning 60 games, by topping the Western Conference, by appearing on all fronts to be better despite the subtraction of their super sixth man, the Thunder don’t have people chattering on anymore about the trade.
But lose at any point, and that’s going to be the first question. Get ready for it. You might be sick of the Harden talk, but consider this your warning: If the Thunder fall anywhere short of the Finals, the focus from everyone will be squarely on the decision to trade Harden. History will be revised and revisited, and there will be those that proclaim through the gift of hindsight, that the Thunder messed up.
Because of the Thunder’s success, for the most part, I haven’t thought much about trading Harden. But when I look at this picture, honestly, I still kind of can’t believe it actually happened. The Thunder’s season was ticking away as Miami prepared to celebrate a title and there was Harden, right where he’s always been, connecting Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Standing between them with an arm around each, Harden embraced his two teammates and friends as the three stood near the end of the bench with a defiant “NEVER AGAIN” look to them. It just seemed perfect to me. Harden has always been in the middle of things for the Thunder, from his actual locker being between Westbrook and KD, to his game being the perfect complement to Durant’s effortless talent and Westbrook’s relentless energy.
I knew Harden’s contract was a potential issue and a tense negotiation was coming, but watching him with Westbrook and Durant, never did I think he’d be somewhere else. And I doubt Harden did either. If Presti could’ve offered him a new deal the morning after the Game 5 loss, I bet Harden would’ve signed for $4 million a year. But as the smoke cleared and the dust settled, Harden put a priority on himself, which he had every right to do. Harden’s a max player if there ever was one. Just not to the Thunder, who already had two in place.
So the unthinkable happened. The Thunder subtracted their Sixth Man of the Year, an Olympian, a 24-year-old unselfish star. They traded him. Harden didn’t leave. He was sent packing. I’m on record as saying I think the right move was to play out the season with Harden and then revisit. You were guaranteed at least this season with him and maybe he’d have a change of heart. That’s against the Thunder philosophy of always minding the long-term picture first, so they had to deal him. I get it. It made the most sense. Keeping him would be a calculated risk, one that either would’ve paid the dividends of a title, or the disaster of an empty return on watching a 24-year-old star walk. Presti told me the day after the trade that if he could’ve had the guarantee of a championship, he would’ve rented Harden for a season. But there are no guarantees. Injuries, upsets, surprises — they all happen. So Harden had to be dealt.
* * *
The shock to the system of trading a player as beloved as Harden clouded everyone’s vision and made a lot of folks — myself very included — overlook the fact that the Thunder still employed Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
It’s been really hard for people to fully grasp that the Thunder might be better despite subtracting a player the caliber of Harden. I’ve tried to explain this apparent phenomenon myself, but basically, it’s as simple as removing Harden has meant more for Westbrook and Durant to do. More responsibility. Which has been very good for OKC. Their progression and development has been obvious, but there’s also a new freedom for them. Removing Harden’s playmaking and talent has forced both to push their limits and boundaries as players, and expand for the better. It seems too simple, but the Thunder’s improvement this season can be summarized as no Harden meant more Westbrook and more Durant.
It’s taken me a while to come to this conclusion, but my eyes and the facts make it impossible to deny: I think the Thunder are better this year than last. The margin of victory, the wins, the evolution of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, the growth of the offense, the efficiency numbers — they’re better. They are. But what we don’t know yet is if they’ll be as successful. And that’s what will define this season, and the decision made to trade Harden five days before it started.
Because while the 2012-13 installment of the Thunder is better than the 2011-12 one, what we’ll never know is if this season’s team would be superior if Harden was on it. And we’ll never know if he would’ve made a difference, or not. We can guess, speculate and wonder. But we can’t know.
* * *
I’ve felt like the trade of Harden was really the Thunder’s first Grown Up Moment. It was the first reality check that no, it’s not going to be this easy. Because let’s face it: Since 3-29, life has been pretty damn good. You know you haven’t suffered much when you only have one example of adversity, and it’s from a season you didn’t care anyway because you were so excited just to be watching the NBA at all.
What’s funny about the Thunder’s journey to this spot is that now is the time it was actually supposed to be starting. Think back to that 2008-09 inaugural season. As the Thunder slogged through a 23-59 season, the common theme from everyone was, “It’s not supposed to work now, wait a three or four years.” Instead, the Thunder found a flux capacitor and brought the future four years early. A 50-win season and playoff trip turned to a Western Conference Finals berth turned to an NBA Finals berth. All before the core of the team turned 25 years old.
The progress has been planned though. This was the process that Sam Presti preached from day one. But in an ironic way, Presti and the supersoldier Thunder developmental program did far too good a job. Westbrook was never supposed to be THIS good. Ibaka wasn’t supposed to be THIS good. Harden wasn’t supposed to be THIS good. Durant, well yeah. But the other guys, they outplayed themselves. And because of the rapid ascension, it complicated the future. Kind of a backwards thing, right? If the Thunder had stuck more to the anticipated timetable of projected success, they’d probably still have everyone on the team, and with money to spare.
(That’s kind of a dumb way to look at it though, I realize.)
Yet here they are, an established NBA power, a legit title contender. Here’s the thing: Just because the Thunder are ridiculously ahead of schedule doesn’t mean that’s an excuse to not embrace the moment. It’s still mildly unprecedented for a team this young to enjoy this much success, but that’s not permission slip to not finish the job. If anything, it should only serve as more motivation to break through.
* * *
What happens if the Thunder don’t win an NBA title this season? What happens if they don’t win the West? These are fascinating questions to me. And they scare me. I don’t think some realize that it’s actually really, really hard to do.
Because while the Harden trade was that first Grown Up moment for the fanbase, a dose of reality that it really isn’t this easy could be completely sobering. How would everyone respond? How would everyone feel? Would there still be that warm and fuzzy feeling for the team if they massively disappointed everyone?
Until now, they’ve been exceeding expectations and taking necessary steps. But eventually, doesn’t the plan have to work?
All you can do is put yourself in the position to compete and once you’re there, it’s all got to fall into place. It almost did last season. Not a week goes by where I don’t shake my fist at the Celtics for falling on their face in Game 6 against the Heat. It was all setting up perfectly for the Thunder and then poof, LeBron had to complete his final evolutionary phase and mutate into a straight basketball killing machine.
The Thunder have done what they can and they seem to be in great position to return to the Finals. If they can get there, who knows. Maybe it’s Durant’s turn to take that step. Or maybe more heartbreak is necessary. And if the latter happens, then what?
* * *
As the playoffs begin, the Thunder are in that difficult position of championship or massive disappointment. I thought with the Harden trade that is would force everyone to reevaluate their expectations of this team, but that door had its hinges blown off when it became obvious how good this team still is.
So those scary, nail-biting, crippling expectations are back. The mindset of “title or bust” almost makes it tough to even have fun with the playoffs. (Real talk: I had the completely stupid thought once of envying lottery fanbases because they get a carefree season and summer. After I had it, I immediately gave myself a chemical burn.)
There will be a next season. There will be a next postseason. There will be more chances to win that elusive championship. That’s the vision of the Presti master plan; build a team that gives itself multiple, consistent years of contending.
But the long-term doesn’t matter right now. RIGHT NOW, matters right now. The first season is over, and it’s on to the second one, where all the games actually matter. And as it should, it starts with James Harden. He was the final puzzle piece in assembling the Thunder’s young championship core when he was Oklahoma City’s first draft pick. And now he the first one to solve in this playoff puzzle. It’s pretty much perfect.
Enjoy the playoffs, people.