The Best NBA Threesome That Never Was

Let’s rewind the clock just over 30 years ago. Imagine, back then, telling an NBA fan that, someday, there will be a guy who possessed the all-around game of George “Iceman” Gervin, except with more of a killer instinct and stretched out in a seven-foot body. There would also be a guy who’d be the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double throughout an entire NBA season (three times over), and he’d also happen to be one of the most tireless and pathologically competitive players of his era. Then, there would also be a guy who’d be one of the greatest singular offensive dynamos since Pistol Pete Maravich. Now imagine telling that fan that all three of those guys would, someday, play on the same team. If he (or she) didn’t tell you that you were full of crap, their head would probably explode, right? The next thing out of his or her mouth would be the question of “how many NBA Championships did this team win?” Let’s take a look at the best NBA threesome that never was.

Before Kevin Durant joined the 73-win Golden State Warriors, and even before LeBron James made the idea of a “superteam” mainstream when he and Chris Bosh famously joined Dwayne Wade in Miami, there was another superteam already built. We largely give credit to the Warriors for being the first “four-headed” superteam, but the one in question happened to have four legitimate stars as well. Unlike the Miami Heat team formed in 2011 or the Boston Celtics team formed in the summer of 2007 (whom many consider to be the first true “superteam” with three stars in Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce), all four members of this team were drafted and nurtured (at least early on) by the same team.

It’s the only super team in NBA history that would trot out three NBA MVP’s playing on the floor together.

We’re talking, of course, about the Oklahoma City Thunder, the greatest superteam of the past decade that never truly was.

We marvel over the Warriors foursome of Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Draymond Green. But after hitting home runs with their picks in the first round of the 2007, 2008, and 2009 NBA Draft, the Thunder had a homegrown core comprising Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka.

In Harden’s rookie season (2009-2010), the Thunder made it to the postseason for only the second time in the past seven seasons. One year later, they made it to the Western Conference Finals. The following season (2011-2012), Oklahoma City finished with the 2nd best record in the NBA. Durant and Westbrook both finished in the top five in the NBA in scoring (Durant led the league with 28.0 points per game and finished second in the NBA MVP voting), Ibaka led the league with 3.65 blocks per game, and Harden would go on to win the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. While the main “takeaway” story of the 2011-2012 season will always be LeBron James winning his first NBA title in his second season with the Miami Heat, the fact that the Thunder went 15-3 through the Western Conference Playoffs, and even took Game 1 of the Finals against Miami, gets overlooked.

Still, with the embarrassment of basketball talent riches they had assembled, almost anyone in and around the NBA believed that the Thunder would be the foil to James and the Heat, and it was just a matter of time before the Thunder not only made it back to the Finals but won a title of their own.

But the folks in Oklahoma City’s front office were facing a different vision of the future. Before the dust had fully settled on the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals in 16 years (back when they were still the Seattle SuperSonics), the Thunder brain trust had to determine whether they could keep the young nucleus together. Harden entered the summer as a restricted free agent, and would likely command a premium contract; Ibaka, a free agent the following season, would likely command the same. That forced the Thunder to determine whether it was realistic to try and re-sign both, likely incurring a nasty hit from the NBA’s luxury tax as a result, or break up a team swept the defending champion Dallas Mavericks and dispatched Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers in five games in the first two rounds of the playoffs, and took four straight games against the San Antonio Spurs (who had the best record in the NBA) after going down 0-2 to start the Western Conference Finals.

And this is where Clayton Ike Bennett, the chairman of the ownership group of the Oklahoma City Thunder, enters the picture. Let’s get one thing straight: Clay Bennett is concerned more about the bottom line than he does the product. If an inferior product is good for his bottom line, then he’s good with the inferior product. If a superior product makes his customers happier but hurts his bottom line, then the most important person remains unhappy — Bennett.

In one of the handful of blemishes on the tenure of former NBA commissioner David Stern, the league allowed Bennett to purchase the SuperSonics franchise, fully aware of the fact that Bennett was a native of Oklahoma City, and sought to capitalize on the legwork the league had done to eventually move a team to that location. Despite lying to the Seattle public with his promise of a good faith attempt to keep the team in Seattle, the cushy nine-figure tax breaks and future business development plans for a new arena in Oklahoma City represented the proverbial writing on the wall.

So what does Bennett have to do with breaking up this core? Simple: the money. Bennett didn’t — and doesn’t — care about the fans’ feelings, whether they be in Seattle or Oklahoma City. Bennett didn’t want to pay the luxury tax that would come as a result of the future contract extensions for Harden and Ibaka, so the edict was made to Presti: we can only keep one — regardless of the fact that they’d be breaking up their unprecedented core of talent — and the other has to go. When a young Harden — who was just coming off his third season in the NBA and wasn’t even 23 years old yet — looked like a deer in the headlights during the 2012 NBA Finals (his 12.4 points over 32 minutes per game don’t fully tell the story of how overwhelmed he looked), Presti placed his chips on Ibaka — the 6’10 forward who was a All-Defensive First Team selection and could even shoot from three — as the guy whom the team would move forward with.

If Presti has any “blood on his hands” for breaking up the burgeoning superteam, it stems from this specific decision. The decision to break up the core can (and should) be attributed directly to Bennett. But the decision of HOW the team would be broken up (or which player would be dealt) is on Presti.

You know how the rest of this story unfolds. In October of 2012, the Thunder traded away Harden to the Houston Rockets as part of a six-player deal that netted them swingmen Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, along with two first round picks. To Presti’s credit, one of those two picks did become center Steven Adams, but the other pick turned out to be a complete disaster when they took Mitch McGary from the University of Michigan, who was out of the league after just two seasons.

Harden went to Houston and became just the fifth player in team history to reach 2,000 points in a season. Many people believed Harden should have won the league’s MVP award after the 2016-2017 season, but Harden made up for it by winning it one year later. He’s also been named All-NBA First Team four times in his five seasons in Houston. And in this 2018-2019 season, he was declared arguably the best player in the world by averaging 36.5 points per game and scoring more than 30 points in 32 straight games.

Despite the enormous successes reached by Durant and Westbrook individually, the Thunder would not return to the NBA Finals after trading Harden. They finished with the second-best record in the NBA the year after trading Harden, only to suffer an early exit after Westbrook suffered a torn meniscus in the Western Conference SemiFinals. Two seasons later, the Thunder would miss the playoffs outright, when Kevin Durant missed nearly the entire 2014-2015 season due to a foot injury. In 2016, they blew a 3-2 series lead in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors.

Before the missed 2014-2015 season, Durant was named the league’s MVP, after he averaged an NBA-high 32 points per game, along with 7.4 rebounds and a career-high 5.5 assists per game. But with Durant out the following season, it gave Westbrook the ability to showcase his one-man wrecking crew style of play. That’s why, when Durant left Oklahoma City after the heartbreaking loss in the 2016 playoffs, Westbrook played with a singular ferocity the likes of which we haven’t seen from one player in years, averaging an NBA-high 31.6 points per game, along with 10.4 assists and 10.7 rebounds per game, en route to winning an MVP award of his own in 2017.

When you see what these guys grew and became, it’s hard not to think that, if Oklahoma City had just opened up its coffers, it almost certainly could’ve have broken up the stranglehold that the Warriors have had over the Western Conference for the last four years (especially since Durant might not have departed to win a championship in Golden State in the first place). It’s possible that the Thunder would be the team that LeBron James was recruiting fellow NBA stars to beat.

History has not been, and will not be kind to Presti, even if it wasn’t his idea to break up the team. There will almost certainly be documentaries about this team, and they’ll be riveting. Because the ultimate success the Oklahoma City Thunder could’ve achieved is the greatest story that was never told.

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