I consume a lot of NBA commentary, as you might imagine. You have to if you run an NBA blog, for no other reason than that you have to stay informed about more than just the news but also the popular storylines being discussed by others. And one thing that has struck me as very interesting is that the Harden/Westbrook reunion has not really been given the standing it deserves as a national story.
Most of the preview-ish offseason talk has focused around the two L.A. teams who made major splashes, acquiring some of the very best players in the game. That’s not surprising. Any time one of the major market franchises makes a major move, everything else will obviously be pushed to the background. But even when the Rockets are discussed, its more in a “can this work?” sort of way.
Think about it, really. The Oklahoma City Thunder, leading up to and after their Finals berth, were the team of the future and present. They were supposed to be a dynasty with Westbrook, Harden, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka. Sam Presti completely nails three consecutive drafts in a row, something that maybe has never been done before(?), getting Durant at #2, Westbrook at #4, and then Harden at #3. And then it all starts falling apart with the Harden trade as management begins penny pinching in the midst of a title run.
But even before the Harden trade, what not enough people have written about is that there was actually constant chatter about dealing Westbrook. I vividly remember that being one of the prominent NBA storylines at the time. Could Durant and the Thunder reach their potential with Westbrook’s selfish style of play at point guard? There was even a hypothetical Chris Paul for Westbrook trade that got floated around. (The irony.)
History remembers the decision being about Harden vs. Ibaka, when the Thunder’s financial issues became imminent. But Harden vs. Westbrook was the real decision. And with the way it all played out, I think you can argue beyond a reasonable doubt that the Thunder absolutely hitched their wagon to the wrong guy. They should have traded Westbrook and kept Harden. Had they done that, they possibly would still have both Harden and Durant in Oklahoma City.
We know how it plays out from there. Durant leaves and it becomes clear from his burner account that he left because of Westbrook. In the meantime, Harden develops into the most unstoppable one-on-one player in NBA history, perfecting his craft with his own franchise. Westbrook becomes an extreme version of himself too, stuffing the stat sheet on the way to three consecutive seasons averaging a triple double, winning the MVP award, but getting possibly even worse as a shooter, and never improving as a decision maker.
The Harden trade goes down as maybe one of the greatest trades in NBA history and is Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s masterpiece. It defines the Thunder as their window closes post-Durant. And then when it all comes crashing down with the Paul George trade, Presti deals Westbrook too to the same place that stole Harden out from under him! Now Presti, of course, got a great deal. I never dreamed he could get two lightly protected first round draft picks for Russ. But the optics of dealing Westbrook to Houston of all places does carry some humor.
What do you do if you’re a Thunder fan? After years of inexplicably hating Harden (when he didn’t choose to leave but rather was traded after turning down a lowball contract offer), booing him in his returns, you almost have to embrace him and the Rockets now, right? Russ is still beloved; the most beloved figure in Thunder history. If you’re a Thunder fan, you’re watching two guys who first came together before your eyes as basically teenagers, fresh off their freshman seasons of college. And now they’ve both grown supersized, each having enjoyed the accolade for greatest individual performance in a season by a player. Now, post-30, they are both trying to find absolute redemption and claim what has eluded each of them for a decade.
For Harden, its been not seizing the moment. The Rockets routinely have seen their season end with him wilting under pressure. (I know that won’t be a popular opinion among many of you reading this.) And for Westbrook, its been about doing too much, with the Thunder going down every year in a flurry of Westbrook errant jumpshots, even dating back to the Durant days. Now they combine forces with the West wide open in the wake of Durant’s departure from Golden State. Can Russ’s irrational confidence take the pressure off of Harden? Will being the clear second fiddle help rein Russ in?
This story is not just about what happens next year. Its about the arc of two players who find themselves together again when they should have never been separated.