Did the Thunder choose the wrong guard between Westbrook and Harden?
Monday was a tale of two MVPs. While the expected 2018 NBA MVP led his team to a commanding 3-1 lead, the incumbent got flamed all night on social media as his team now sits a game away from imploding.
In Minnesota, the pressure was on James Harden to perform at an MVP-level against a Timberwolves squad hungry to even their best-of-seven series with the Rockets. Harden struggled in game 2, making just two of 18 shots in a winning effort, and then followed up by missing 12 of 21 attempts as Minnesota took game 3. It looked like game 4 would be much of the same when his first seven shots didn't drop and the Wolves trailed by one at the half.
Harden responded in MVP fashion, outscoring the TImberwolves alone in the third (22 points for Harden, 20 for Minnesota) as Houston exploded for a franchise-record 50 points in the third quarter en route to a 119-100 win. Harden finished with 36 points on 12-of-26 shooting, all but erasing the stench of the previous 10 quarters.
"We hit the switch, the switch that we've been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs," Harden told TNT after the game.
Meanwhile in Utah, Russell Westbrook guaranteed to "shut that shit off" in game 4 after Ricky Rubio gave Russ a dose of his own medicine with a 26-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist triple-double performance in game 3. Russ did cut Rubio's point total in half, but the Thunder were embarrassed by the Jazz 113-96, showing less fight on the court than Mitt Romney on the sidelines.
Two men. Two MVP-caliber stars going in completely opposite directions.
To think, they were once teammates.
The biggest modern-day question in sports is 'what if the Oklahoma City Thunder stayed the course with their homegrown picks - Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden?' OKC made the NBA Finals when it seemed like their core was starting to reach their peak, and most definitely would've won an NBA Championship (or two... or three... or four) in time with a trio of future MVPs on their roster.
The belief was the Thunder couldn't afford to keep all four players. Kevin Durant had just started a five year, $86 million extension and was entrenched as the franchise cornerstone, and Russell Westbrook had signed a five year, $80 million extension in January 2012. The decision on who to keep and who to let go came down to Harden vs. Ibaka.
GM Sam Presti tried to lock both down the summer before they hit restricted free agency. Serge was able to come to terms on a 4-year, $49 million deal in August 2012, but not Harden. The Thunder offered him 4 years, $55 million, but he wanted the max. Thus, Harden was shipped to Houston, leaving OKC fans and all of basketball to question the move for years to come.
The Thunder could've waited until the summer, maneuver around the books to find the financial flexibility to keep the Beard (read: amnestied Kendrick Perkins' abysmal $8 million contract.) They could've sat and let another team sign Harden to an offer sheet and matched the deal, and dealt with the salary cap and luxury tax ramifications later on. But right before the 2012-13 season, months before they really needed to make a decision, they settled for the trade.
Not only has it changed the course of Oklahoma City basketball, it changed the landscape of the NBA.
The Thunder never got back to the NBA Finals with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, collapsing in 2016 after a 3-1 series lead on Golden State. They then traded Ibaka to Orlando and watched as Kevin Durant bolted for the Warriors, subsequently leading the best team in basketball to another NBA title.
James Harden has since become one of the best players of the modern era, lifting the Rockets to the top seed in the west as they try to end a 23-year championship drought. Ibaka has regressed, but is carving out a nice role for himself with the Toronto Raptors.
And then there's Russ - an undeniable superstar with an MVP and consecutive triple-double seasons on his resume. He's one of the most exhilarating players in the game today, but he's failed to win with one of the greatest of all time (KD), couldn't do it on his own, and now sits a game away from elimination with a prime Paul George and (not-so-much in his prime) Carmelo Anthony.
It begs the question: did the Thunder trade the wrong guy in their backcourt?
The decision (made easier by giving Westbrook the max) was always between Harden and Ibaka, but what if OKC gave Harden the max instead and shipped Westbrook off for assets far greater than Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lang?
The instant thought is Durant possibly would have stayed in OKC. He and Russ continuously clashed as both tried to assert themselves as the alpha of the team. Harden has shared the spotlight well with Chris Paul in one season in Houston, and could've dealt with the same playing with Durant, who was already set as the franchise player in Oklahoma City. Golden State is still enticing, but having a better rapport with the Robin to your Batman may have been enough to sway KD into signing a new deal.
For everything that makes Russell Westbrook great - an explosive, exciting game, the unwavering will to win - James Harden brings an equally dominant game, plus an underrated intangible: the ability to make everyone around him better. When he's on, he commands so much attention it opens up plays for others. In an MVP season for Harden, the Rockets have been the best three-point shooting team in the league.
The Thunder move as Russell Westbrook moves. His aggressive play can be dominant at times, at others, it becomes more of a detriment to his teammates than an asset.
Westbrook has just one more chance to prove he can take his club to glory. If he doesn't, George is likely to leave him high and dry just as KD did two years ago, the 'what if's' will intensify, and he'll forever have to play through the whispers from fans and pundits who will second-guess every move he makes for the rest of his career.
Harden, on the other hand, is beginning what could be a long run atop the NBA in Houston. Time will tell whether the Rockets will be coronated, but they're much further along (and better) than OKC.
Five and a half years later, Thunder fans have to be thinking in the back of their minds if they could go back in time and trade the other guard.