The Oklahoma City Thunder led the 2012 NBA Finals 1-0. Everything that happened since, wasn’t in the script if you were a Thunder fan.
OKC lost 4 straight and the championship went to Miami. Thoughts went to a looming salary cap quandary for the Thunder, but as the summer months passed it appeared they’d put that off until next summer. After all, it wasn’t something that needed to be addressed yet. But wouldn’t you know it, on October 27, three days before the opening game of the season, OKC pulled the trigger on a deal sending away James Harden. They had made their decision. A year earlier than they had to.
GM Sam Presti got quite a bit in return (by NBA standards), but was it wise to trade such a valuable player before exploring all avenues to keep him. We maybe didn’t know Harden would score 25 a game, but we knew he was scoring 17 a game as a vital cog in the Thunder machine. So was it all that shocking he’d have the year he had? I say no.
Nonetheless, the Thunder won 60 games in the regular season, more than they did the year previous, and enough to land the #1 seed in the West, something they had never done before in OKC.
They were still the favorites to win the West and play Miami in the Finals, and then Russell Westbrook, the guy who has never missed a game in his career, goes down and out for the rest of the playoffs.
The Grizzlies win a incredibly close 5 game series knocking OKC out much earlier than they had planned in the second round.
So, a couple things…
1. Would the Thunder have beaten the Grizzlies with Westbrook healthy? I say yes.
2. Would the Thunder have beaten the Grizzlies if they had kept Harden? I say yes. Don’t tell me about two years ago. The Grizzlies were a different team, and so was the Thunder. Please look it up. In a series as close as this one was, Harden, in my opinion, would have made the difference.
But, bigger picture…
The Westbrook injury did happen. Can’t change that. Even with Harden, OKC may have beat Memphis. They have have even won the West. But I don’t think they’d have beaten the Heat. Of course, if Indiana beats Miami first, then we’ll have a different discussion Thunder fans, because then, yes, then I think OKC may have been able to still win it all in this crazy injury-ravaged year.
But, assuming they wouldn’t win it all, and that is what it’s all about, then the Harden deal really turns out to be a mute subject for 2012-13 because without a healthy Westbrook it may not have mattered.
All around, it was just a really bad luck year for the Thunder this year.
Okay, so what about next year?
Well, the good news first.
1. Durant and Westbrook, healthy and playing, will have them winning around 60 games next season almost regardless of anything else they do. So that’s good.
2. Reggie Jackson picked up valuable playing time and experience, and if he gets better in the summer, he can be part of the solution to replace Harden’s impact.
3. Jeremy Lamb basically was redshirted. He was the player Houston took in the first round and traded to OKC. He seemed promising, so now will the shooting guard make a leap to be part of the rotation?
4. The Thunder get Toronto’s lottery pick (top 3 protected). It would be the 12th pick right now. That and their own pick in the first round (#29), plus the Bobcats’ 2nd round pick (#32) for a team that drafts well historically under Sam Presti, could help fill some of their holes. The Thunder have two first round picks in 2014 too, theirs and the Mavs.
5. They can amnesty that big stiff Kendrick Perkins and save $17 million over the next two seasons against the cap.
The bad news now…
1. You can’t get back a top 15 player in the NBA in James Harden.
2. If you cut Perkins, you have to replace him at center. I like Nick Collison, but is he the answer? Even then, you have to find another big guy who will be part of the rotation.
3. Serge Ibaka didn’t improve as much as you hoped he would this year. Will he get better next year?
4. Kevin Martin is a free agent. He probably isn’t coming back, and even though he disappointed in the postseason he still gave the Thunder 15 points a game that must be replaced.
5. It’s a little scary that Jeremy Lamb wasn’t able to see the floor his rookie season and he might be counted on next year.
Bottom-line is that OKC is going to be really good again. They can’t get back what they’ve done, but they can add to this team and make it better with some good decision-making this summer.