Unfortunately for the fans in Oklahoma City, the 2012 Finals didn’t go quite as planned. The Miami Heat ended up winning in five games, earning LeBron his first NBA Title. As for James Harden, he struggled, averaging only 12.5 points per game on 38 percent shooting. He also struggled on the defensive end when he had to match up with James or Dwyane Wade. As it turned out, Game 5 would also be Harden’s last game in a Thunder uniform — he was famously traded that summer to Houston.
All Harden has done since that summer he first joined the Rockets is turn himself into one of the league’s best offensive players and the runner up for the regular season MVP in 2015. It’s hard to argue the package of Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and two picks that turned into Steven Adams and Mitch McGary ended up being worth it for the Thunder, even if it meant they got to hold on to Serge Ibaka.
Although keeping Ibaka and not wanting to pay the luxury tax were cited as the main reasons Oklahoma City dealt Harden, there may have been another cause.
Recently, on an edition of the Basketball Insiders Podcast (H/T Pro Basketball Talk), Steven Kyler speculated that one reason the Thunder may have traded Harden was his “mindset” and the fact that he had the propensity to stay out late in Miami during the biggest series of his career.
“It was a lot more about James and James’ mindset. You’re kind of seeing it play out now in Houston, is what the Oklahoma City Thunder were afraid of, and that is, if you rewind back to the NBA Finals run, James was kind of a ghost in the NBA Finals. In Miami, there were rumors that he was out late on South Beach.”
It’s no secret the Rockets haven’t had the best chemistry this season, with rumors swirling at one point that Harden even pushed for Kevin McHale’s firing and asked for Dwight Howard to be traded. Harden has also been known to take plays off now and then, particularly on the defensive end of the court.
Could General Manager Sam Presti and the Thunder have seen this all coming when they let him go — despite all of his obvious talent? That seems like a stretch, and a lot of the issues in Houston are speculative and not actionable. While Harden’s Finals performance may have been affected by his partying (there’s no actual evidence of this), if Presti knew what kind of player Harden would develop into, it’s hard to imagine that anything would have stopped him from holding onto him. Then again, there is such a thing as too many ball-dominant players on the court at once, and Ibaka has fit pretty well with this group in the mean time.
All Presti and the rest of the Thunder fan base can do now is wonder what might have been had Harden, Westbrook, and Durant been given a few more cracks at winning an NBA title.