I love history. Seriously, what is better than looking at the past while trying to analyze why people make certain decisions? But as much as I love the study of the past, there is another thing that I love just as much, and that is the great study of “what if?” What if things were different? What if one person had a different decision? How would those things affect history, and how would the narratives change? The NBA has a plentiful history with great storylines and entertaining people. The NBA also has a plentiful “what if” culture. There are so many decisions that have happened in the NBA that could have changed the league entirely if one thing had been different. So step into an alternate reality with me. Hop in the Delorian and let’s go back in time and change the past. Because somewhere on another Earth it happened differently and that’s where I want to go.
Welcome To Earth 35130
The first “what if” scenario that I want us to uncover is the world where Superstar James Harden never gets traded from the Thunder to the Rockets in 2012. This is a world where everyone is wearing Thunder gear and Kevin Durant is a national hero. This is the world that we almost lived in. In 2011, the Oklahoma City Thunder reached their first NBA Finals with the three young pillars that they had founded their team on in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. They were loveable, they were fun to watch, and they genuinely seemed to have fun playing together. Kevin Durant was the scorer, a guy whose game was so smooth that it made us seem like we were watching true art. Russell Westbrook was the heart of the team, the emotional leader who played every possession like it was his last and would die before he allowed you to beat him. James Harden was the glue, a guy that many times came off the bench and provided the spark for the Thunder and was sometimes their most unguardable guy. They were all three stars, one of the first natural big threes, and the most likely trio to lead us into our next phase of the league. In that 2012 Finals, the young Thunder team lost to the closest thing to Thanos that the NBA has ever seen, the 2012 version of LeBron James (Lebron’s stat lines from that year are PREPOSTEROUS) and the Miami Heat. But that loss was okay; the Thunder were young and would be back again, and the Heat were a little older. The next phase of NBA history would belong to OKC, that is until the Thunder decided to trade Harden.
On October 27, 2012, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded 23-year-old James Harden to the Houston Rockets for three bags of Cheetos and a slim jim (basically). The Thunder broke up their young core because they didn’t want to pay the luxury tax by giving Harden a full 4-year, $60 million max contract extension after the 2012 season. But in reality, the Thunder didn’t necessarily have to do this. They could have kept Harden on his rookie deal and then matched any contract offer he got in the next year as a restricted free agent to keep him long term, and they also could have dumped Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins to have room to keep their big three together. So let’s work in a reality where this actually happened and analyze basketball from that perspective. So many people and teams would have been affected by this non-trade including the Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, San-Antonio Spurs, Los-Angeles Clippers, Chris Paul, and Lebron James.
2012-2013 NBA Season
We will first grab Ms. Cleo’s psychic ball and take a look at the season right after Harden was traded. In the 2012-2013 NBA season the Oklahoma City Thunder lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Semifinals while the Houston Rockets lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Thunder. But we’re not in the regular world, we’re in the alternate universe, remember? So in the world where Harden never gets traded, the Thunder beat the Grizzlies 4-2 in that series. They then go on to play the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals and lose to the Spurs 4-3. The Spurs wanted revenge from the previous year and had something to prove. Plus, it seemed like destiny in the 2013 NBA Finals when Bosh tapped the ball out to Ray Allen and he hit the game-winning shot to keep the Heat alive in the series. LeBron still wins his second ring, the Thunder lose in the Western Conference Finals, and the Rockets wouldn’t make the playoffs.
2013-2014 NBA Season
This is where things begin to get interesting. In the real world, the Thunder lost to the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals and the Rockets lost in the first round again. In our fantasy world, things turned out a lot differently. Because the Rockets didn’t make the playoffs, they received a lottery pick in which they drafted Victor Oladipo at number 2 overall. The Thunder, on the other hand, stormed through the regular season. Harden, Westbrook, and Durant morphed into one of the most formidable big threes of all time and won 66 games in the regular season. They then went on to beat the San-Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals 4-3 (revenge series) and beat the Miami Heat 4-2 in the NBA Finals. The young 3 win their first title, LeBron and the Heat fail to get their third ring, and the Rockets draft a young building block for the future.
2014-2015 NBA Season
In Earth 35130, the defending champion Thunder come off of a championship and have a down season due to a Kevin Durant injury. Westbrook and Harden drag their team to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the young Golden State Warriors. The Houston Rockets, led by Victor Oladipo, get bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks, but have a promising future to look forward to. The Warriors go on to win the title against the injured Cleveland Cavaliers.
2015-2016 NBA Season
With Durant healthy, the Thunder return to championship form to get the #1 seed over the defending champion Warriors. The Rockets are improved with another year under Oladipo’s belt, but are still not at the level to contend for a championship. The Clippers are also a formidable foe led by Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love are out in front in the East with the Cavaliers. This season in the real world was extremely important. This was the year where the Thunder blew a 3-1 lead to the Warriors who then went on to blow their own 3-1 lead against the Cavaliers after Draymond Green got suspended for Game 6. On Earth 35130, the Thunder run through the playoffs and beat the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals 4-1. With no worry of Draymond Green losing his mind, the Thunder roll over the Cavaliers 4-2 in the NBA Finals. Durant wins his second ring with Harden and Westbrook, LeBron is stuck at 2 rings, and Draymond Green has nobody to cry to on the phone in the parking lot.
2016-2017 NBA Season
This would have been the Durant free agency year, but since Harden would have never been traded, Durant signs long-term in OKC. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and the Cavaliers become extremely desperate and hold Dan Gilbert hostage until he trades Kevin Love and the rest of the team for Indiana Pacers star, Paul George. The Houston Rockets decide that it is now time to work towards their ultimate goal of a title and trade a large trade package to the Bulls for SG Jimmy Butler to play alongside Victor Oladipo. The LA Clippers, desperate to make a move, trade Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan to the Spurs in a blockbuster deal for Kawhi Leonard. (seriously, I’m losing my mind at this point of writing this). The Warriors are building their roster with solid role players and are looking to still be a contender. The Thunder roll through the playoffs once again, but this time are upended by the new-look Cavaliers with Paul George in a close 4-3 finals that comes down to Matthew Dellavedova clotheslining Kendrick Perkins, which leads to an all-out brawl where Perkins breaks Dellavedova’s jaw and gets two technical fouls. Kyrie hits both free throws and leads the Cavaliers to their first NBA title. Delly celebrates in ICU.
2017-2018 NBA Season
The Cavaliers championship window takes a hit when Kyrie Irving begins to become frustrated by questions regarding LeBron James being a father figure to him (some things never change regardless of what reality you are on) and is traded to the Boston Celtics. The OKC Thunder continue to put nice role players around Durant, Harden, and Westbrook as they continue to be the most dominant team in the West. The season plays out with the Thunder rolling through the playoffs and playing the Cavaliers once again in the NBA Finals, outlasting them 4-2 in a tight series. Durant gets his third ring, LeBron is thinking another team, and Kyrie begins to believe that Earth 35130 is a hexagon.
2018-2019 NBA Season
This is the season that turns crazy in the summer. Paul George leaves the Cavaliers to sign long-term with the Los Angeles Clippers and Kawhi Leonard (they still trade Blake Griffin to Detroit to retire a lonesome man). LeBron James still has his sights set on the Los Angeles Lakers and signs a long-term contract with them. All of the teams in the Eastern Conference look like they belong in a church league, while the Western Conference remains strong. The Los Angeles Clippers push the Thunder to the brink, but ultimately lose in the Western Conference Finals 4-3 while the Thunder go on and win their 4th title by beating the Milwaukee Bucks 4-1 in the finals. The Thunder are legitimately a dynasty, Chris Paul is stuck in San Antonio, the Clippers are finally real competition to the Thunder, and LeBron begins working to trade his whole team to the Pelicans for Anthony Davis.
2019-2020 NBA Season
And so we land at today. The Lakers still trade for Anthony Davis, the Clippers still have Kawhi and PG, but the Warriors only win one title. James Harden never wins an MVP but is a 4-time champion. Kevin Durant is no longer a snake but is a national hero. At some point, the contracts would have gotten too big and the pieces would break apart, but the whole NBA landscape would have been different. Kevin Durant would be considered a top 3 player. He would have never joined a superteam, but he would have been the head of one that formed naturally. Russell Westbrook would have never averaged a triple-double, but would have gotten a longer shelf life in his career because he didn’t have to do as much. That is where we would be right now on Earth 35130, but alas it’s time to hop in the Delorian and fly back home. Wave goodbye to all of those Blue 13 jerseys and beards and pick up your Kevin Durant snake shirts for the safe trip back.
And there we are, there’s the answer to our first “What if?” Some things would have changed drastically, but some would have remained the same. LeBron still has three rings, but the Splash Brothers are viewed entirely different. The Thunder would have been a dynasty that would have rivaled the mid-00’s Lakers teams and would have three superstars that the league loved. The Raptors would have never won a title, but Kawhi would have still ended up with the Clippers. This is the world that we could have lived in but alas, Sam Presti decided to trade Harden back in 2012 and we are forced to live in the wormhole of Iso James Harden basketball for the rest of our lives. Kevin Durant will always have tainted rings, and Russell Westbrook will always be our favorite lovable loser. At least we know that Kyrie would still be weird no matter what world we live in.
Andrew Williams is a Contributor for the Unwrapped Sports Network website. Follow him @Andrew_W8 on Twitter.