Hindsight is a dangerous concept.
It was less than a year ago that the Oklahoma City Thunder signed Serge Ibaka to an extension, essentially choosing him over James Harden, whom they shipped off to the Houston Rockets not too long after.
Though at the time it wasn't necessarily considered "a choice," the perils of retrospect have told us otherwise. It was a choice; a seemingly impossible one.
But the Thunder had to make it. And they did.
Ibaka's four-year, $48 million extension limited what Oklahoma City could and was willing to offer Harden. The Thunder could never have offered him the five-year, $80 million deal he got with the Rockets. Under the new CBA, they could only offer four years and roughly $60 million.
There was an exception that would have allowed them to offer the fifth year if they wanted, but they used it on Russell Westbrook in the previous season, leaving them unable to use it on Harden.
But that didn't matter. Westbrook (and Kevin Durant) were always going to get their contracts. They were (and still are) the two best players on the team. They would get their money. End of story.
When it came to Ibaka and Harden, it was more complicated. Would either of the two accept less to stay in Oklahoma City? Or would the Thunder be forced to choose?
To the Thunder's credit, they came fairly close to actualizing the former. A four-year deal worth between $53-54 million was put on the table, just a few million annually shy of the maximum they could offer.
Which wasn't enough.
Harden had sacrificed enough during his time in Oklahoma City. He was coming off the bench and dwarfed by the mammoth shadows that Durant and Westbrook both cast. And now he was being asked to take less money too. That wasn't happening.
So the Thunder moved him to the Rockets. They took on Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb and a handful of first-round draft picks and sent Harden on his merry way.
Oklahoma City went on to finish with the best record in the Western Conference, while Harden became a highly touted All-Star in Houston.
This was one of those rare instances where an accord appeared to work out for both teams. The Rockets had a cornerstone to build around; the Thunder were compensated handsomely for their loss and were still a contender. Harden's departure came as a shock and was difficult to stomach, but it worked out.
Fate often has a twisted sense of humor, though. On the final night of the 2012-13 campaign, Houston dropped to eighth place in the Western Conference and was thereby bound for a first-round date with—you guessed it—Oklahoma City.
The irony of the matchup wasn't lost on anyone. Harden returned to the team he had helped build into powerhouse, this time as an opponent, in a playoff setting no less.
Cold logic suggested that the only important aspect of this series was Harden's return. The Rockets didn't stand a chance against the Thunder. Perhaps they would steal a game, but Durant and Westbrook would make quick work of their friend and former teammate.
Through Game 1, nothing changed. Oklahoma City handed out a 29-point beatdown and the Rockets appeared overmatched, bordering on dejected. Houston came out and nearly stole one on the road in Game 2, falling just three points short.
Then everything changed...again.
Westbrook suffered a torn meniscus in Game 2—which he played about half the contest on—and was forced to undergo season-ending surgery.
New life was breathed into the Rockets' cause. And they played that way in Game 3, overcoming a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to recapture the lead.
Once again, though, they fell just shy and found themselves in a 3-0 series hole, a deficit that no team in NBA history has ever been able to overcome. As the youngest team in the league, the Rockets certainly weren't going to be the first.
Two straight victories later, Houston has an opportunity to prove everyone wrong. The Rockets took Game 4 at home and, led by Harden's fourth-quarter heroics in Game 5, stole one in Oklahoma City.
Few saw this coming, and no one in their right frame of mind would have predicted it. But Harden and the Rockets have the Thunder feeling uneasy and have put the rest of the NBA on notice.
As we watched Ibaka miss a game-tying put-back at the buzzer in Game 4 and Harden led the Rockets to a second straight upset in Game 5, we couldn't help but reflect: What if things had been different? What if the Thunder had "chosen" Harden? Would they be better off?
Upon posing such queries, I'm reminded of a simple, yet effective aphorism: You always pick the better player.
If that player in question wants to stay, you keep him. You only trade him if you have to. In the Thunder's case, they didn't have to. Harden wouldn't take a pay cut, but that doesn't mean he didn't want to stay. He just knew he was worth more, and he was.
Oklahoma City could have kept him. I'm not merely saying it could have coughed up the extra dough—though looking at its net worth/profits from last season, I could understand if others wanted me too.
I'm referencing Ibaka. Had the Thunder not signed him, they could have given Harden his money. Had the Thunder not signed him, Harden would still be in Oklahoma City, which would have been the right decision, yes?
It's not that simple. In this instance, it wasn't as cut and dry as the "take the superstar" adage. It's easy to look back now that Westbrook is injured and Harden is giving his former team a scare and make snap judgments.
With Harden, Oklahoma City would have been better equipped to replace the playmaking and scoring lost to Westbrook's injury. That's a fact. Reggie Jackson has done a phenomenal job in Russ' stead, but not like Harden could have.
But were the Thunder really supposed to prepare for that? Hell no. Westbrook hadn't missed a game in his career to this point. There was no way of foretelling that he would go down in the middle of the postseason.
Must we also forget what this Harden-less Thunder convocation did during the regular season?
Their winning percentage this season (.732) was greater than that of last season (.712). They averaged 112.4 points per 100 possessions this year compared to 109.8 last season. And they allowed 102.6 compared to 103.2.
What's more, in 2011-12, the three-man combination of Harden, Durant and Westbrook outscored opponents by an average of 10.1 points per possessions. With Durant, Westbrook and Martin on the floor this season, the Thunder outscored their opponents by 12.1 points per 100 possessions.
The 9.6 points per 100 possessions Oklahoma City outscored its opponents by with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka is also nearly identical to the 10.1 the former two averaged with Harden last season.
In more ways than one, the Thunder were better this year than they were last year. And in situations where they weren't, they were damn close.
So much of that improvement has to do with the evolutions of Westbrook, Durant and yes, even Ibaka. They all stepped up considerably in Harden's absence.
Durant became just the second player in NBA history to shoot 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three and 90 percent from the foul line while also averaging more than 28 points per game. He averaged a career high in assists (4.6) as well.
Westbrook averaged 7.4 assists per game, up nearly two from the year before (5.5), and Ibaka posted career highs in points (13.2) and rebounds (7.7).
Let's not forget what the trade did for Harden either. He averaged a career best in points (25.9), assists (5.8), rebounds (4.9), steals (1.8), shots (17.1) and minutes (38.3). He also procured his first All-Star selection, finally establishing himself as the superstar he was unable to be in Oklahoma City.
We can't overlook that. Any of it.
Harden, Durant and Westbrook worked well with each other. Keeping him wouldn't have been detrimental to team chemistry. But Harden never attempted more than 10.1 shots a night with Oklahoma City. Even if he started, there wouldn't have been that many shots available for him. Not alongside Westbrook and Durant.
And would Durant and Westbrook have felt the urgency to improve as dramatically as they did? Unlikely. Durant wouldn't have needed to be as potent a playmaker. Westbrook, too.
We could argue that the Thunder are better without Harden. We could argue that they're different. But we can only argue with certainty that they're worse now because they don't have Westbrook.
Harden was, and remains, the better player of he and Ibaka. And the Thunder would be better off with the both of them. But they made a choice—a financially driven choice.
Oklahoma City parted ways with a superstar in favor of Ibaka, a star in his own right, with a lower ceiling. And why? Out of ignorance? Misplaced resentment?
No, out of necessity.
The Thunder had two players who could score like Harden (Durant and Westbrook). And they took back someone who could fill the sixth-man role (Martin) for now. Would they have gotten a league-leading shot blocker like Ibaka back in return for him? No. Did they have someone who could replace what Ibaka does defensively? No.
There's no telling how vulnerable the Thunder would have been on the inside relying primarily on Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins. Oklahoma City needed Ibaka more than Harden. Not because he is the better player, but because he filled a more pressing need.
Blame the powers that be for taking Westbrook out of the equation when the Thunder needed him most. Blame the Thunder for not shelling out the cash to retain both Harden and Ibaka. And you can even harbor blame for Perkins' contract if you must.
But don't blame OKC for making the decision it did. Self-imposed or not, the Thunder front office made the right one.
A reality that Harden succeeding at their expense hasn't changed.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, NBA.com and Synergy Sports unless otherwise attributed.
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