Oklahoma City Thunder basketball fans were riding sky-high in early 2012.
Their team had just made its first Finals appearance since moving from Seattle.
And although they lost to the Miami Heat in five games, there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
#OKC had this young core and parlayed it into 0 Titles. Almost impossible.
– Kevin Durant (age 23)
– Russell Westbrook (age 23)
– James Harden (age 22)
– Serge Ibaka (age 22)
— FantasyPros (@FantasyPros) July 12, 2019
Both Durant and Westbrook were well on their way to being superstars.
Harden was the league’s greatest sixth man and Ibaka was an interior force.
Thunder fans had hopes for the next great NBA dynasty to be in their city.
But then October 27th happened and the first crack in those dynasty plans showed itself.
What was once a potential Big Three now became a dynamic duo.
Of course, the Thunder would still be one of the best teams in the association for four years after that trade.
But shipping out Harden killed any hopes of a dynasty forming in Oklahoma City.
Thunder Simply Couldn’t Afford Harden
The main reason Harden left was money.
OKC offered James a four-year, $55.5 million extension – $4.5 million short of the max deal he desired.
After G James Harden decline a 4 Year/55 Million deal for the Thunder, he will get a maz contract (60M) in Houston. -Kidd
— NBA Updates. (@nbaupdate247) October 28, 2012
In an interview with ESPN’s Hannah Storm, Harden stated, “I felt like I already made a sacrifice coming off the bench and doing whatever it takes to help the team, and they weren’t willing to help me.”.
Back in 2011-12, the NBA salary cap was just over $58 million.
Durant had signed his max rookie-scale extension in July 2010 for five-years, $89 million.
Westbrook signed his max rookie-scale extension in January 2012 for five-years, $79 million.
And Ibaka signed a four-year, $49 million rookie-scale extension in August of 2012.
Between those three players, the Thunder already had $46 million on the books.
A max extension for Harden would have put them at $61 million – already over the salary cap.
Meaning owner Clay Bennett would have been paying the luxury tax.
Which in 2012 meant $1 in tax for every $1 over the salary cap.
For a small-market team, that’s a steep price to pay.
Had Sam Presti elected to prioritize Harden over Ibaka, maybe those three would have stuck together.
NBA Was Not Yet Perimeter-Driven League
Had the Harden situation occurred three years later, perhaps things turn out differently.
In 2011-12 the NBA still put a premium on big men that could score in the paint and protect the rim.
The small-ball style of play that dominates today was only in the infant stages at that point.
Steph Curry was beginning his rise to stardom but would not completely alter the way basketball is played for another two years.
Ibaka was an elite shot-blocker who had developed a reliable jump shot and paint game.
Kevin Durant on his former OKC teammate Serge Ibaka and his renaissance this season: "His bread and butter is that mid-range (shot), shooting over top of smalls in the post, finishing at the rim, and blocking shots. When he does that he takes his team to the next level." pic.twitter.com/iWHf3PIU7P
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) November 29, 2018
Locking him up for $10 million less than what he could have gotten on the open market was labeled a shrewd move at the time.
That move would be crucified across the board today.
If the Curry effect happened just two or three years sooner, maybe Harden sticks around.
Presti prioritizes an extension for Harden and ships out Ibaka instead.
OKC keeps three of the most talented offensive players locked up for the foreseeable future and begins what could have been a dynasty.NEXT: 3 Reasons Thunder Are Not Doomed Next Season