Do you remember where you were when James Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets? I was meeting my brother's new girlfriend (now loving wife) for the first time at her apartment. It was a Halloween party and SportsCenter was muted in the background. I came as Rick from The Walking Dead and regretted my decision. A costume sheriffs hat somehow made me look fatter in the bathroom mirror.
The news suddenly broke on the eve of the 2012-13 NBA season. I quickly forgot about my bloated, drunken face as the ESPN ticker flew across the screen. The Oklahoma City Thunder were unable to reach a contract extension with Harden. They were sending the 6'5" shooting guard to Houston for Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin. Pleasant conversation stamped out with an eruption of incomprehensible shouting as OKC had just broken up its budding nucleus. The moment the trigger for the Harden deal was pulled, one of the best bar arguments of all time was born.
What if the Thunder never traded James Harden?
The last memory of Harden in OKC was the 2012 NBA Finals Game 5 blowout loss resulting in LeBron James' first NBA title. A defeated Harden hung his tired arms over Westbrook and Durant's shoulders on the bench as the 4th quarter slipped into garbage time. It was a tough moment to watch, but expectation was they'd bounce back. At the time, the young core was made up of Durant, 23, Westbrook, 23, and Harden, 22. Reigning titans of the Western Conference, Dirk, Kobe, and Duncan, were quickly decimated in the playoffs by Harden's firepower, Durant's dominance, and Westbrook's fearlessness. There was no doubt they’d be back next year.
Harden was still coming off the bench in 2012. His development grew exponentially after the trade, but back then his future as a starter was obvious. So instead, what if the Thunder traded a variety of contracts to keep Harden and promote him to a starting role? Each member of the trio probably doesn't win an MVP award. Each would make less money over time by sacrificing to keep the core together. But it would all be worth it as they would eventually win a couple titles and stifle the South Beach super team. The rise of the Golden State dynasty would be less meteoric and it's possible Durant never joins them in 2016.
It's hard to imagine Harden as anything but a Houston Rocket. As the winner of the 2018 NBA MVP, he joins the ranks of legendary Rockets' big man, Hakeem Olajuwon. As time passes, people will forget about Harden's stop in OKC the same way they did with Hakeem in Toronto. If Harden was never traded then perhaps he wouldn't have become the MVP he is today. Maybe there was just too much talent on one team for it to ever work. It could be Harden was always meant to be more than the third piece.
The hypothetical is a blackhole of bar conversation — tempting to approach but impossible to not get sucked in. It's up there with great conversations like what if Shaq didn't leave Orlando, if Michael never left in 1993, and if the Lakers/Chris Paul trade wasn't vetoed.
But with the Harden trade, I always wonder this: What if Clay Bennet never relocated the Seattle Supersonics to Oklahoma City? Would playing for a historic franchise in an established market impacted this young core differently? Would the fanfare received from the Seattle Seahawks Superbowl victory enticed coveted NBA free agents to sign with the Sonics? Would the Sonics have kept their iconic jerseys or redesigned them to reflect a new era?
The greatest what if of this decade will never be answered. Like when a marriage between friends suddenly ends, it hurts you to see their future dissolve. Each one of them now living very separate lives in different cities. Embellished stories of rifts and betrayals generates gossip, but nostalgia from old photos occasionally resurface loving memories.
Regardless of the paths the three men took, their talent and achievements should be celebrated and appreciated. Perhaps the journeys they're on now were always meant to be this way regardless of any trade or franchise relocation. No bar argument can ever answer what could have been. The only thing any NBA fan should do now is enjoy watching the rest of their brilliant careers unfold.
I write the words I'm too uncomfortable to say.