“Fear the beard.” It became a mantra of sorts for the Oklahoma City Thunder—the one lasting image from their youthfully talented group of the past three seasons. This wasn’t referring to the best scorer in the universe — some guy named Kevin Durant — or their electric point guard Russell Westbrook. No, instead, it referred to the first guy off the bench, a player better known for his gnarly facial hair.
Aside from the beard gimmick, though, James Harden was the glue for the greatest young contender the league has ever seen. Imagine a selfless trio of Olympic gold medalists and perennial All-Stars, all under the age of 25, and with an unfathomable chemistry among them.
Well, I suppose you’ll actually have to imagine it now, since the Thunder’s general manager Sam Presti traded away Harden to the Houston Rockets this past weekend.
The Thunder, after last year’s disappointing Finals loss to the Miami Heat, still had a tremendous window for title contention, combining those three with emerging stars like Serge Ibaka and arguably the best fan base in the entire league. The NBA’s pecking order was never really in question.
For this year’s NBA, it’s always been a given that LeBron James and the Heat are the class of the league, with the Thunder hanging off a little bit behind. As good as Durant is, LeBron turned it up another level and exposed every one of the D.C. native’s vulnerabilities in an absolute dismantling of the Oklahoma City squad.
That may seem like a damning result for the Thunder, as they were constituted. The Heat had the throne and everyone else was watching it, but that fact was by no means conclusive. That’s the kind of result that gets a competitor’s fire rekindled stronger than ever and it was sure as hell going to fuel OKC through next season and beyond–before it dealt away Harden and any chance at realistically contending for a ring, that is.
Now, not only do the Thunder present just a whimpering threat for the Heat, but the team isn’t even the favorite to win its own conference anymore. The Lakers, despite their newfound hoard of talent, have some defensive liabilities along the perimeter which are rendered completely irrelevant by the Beard’s departure. The League doesn’t have a great deal of parity anymore—up until last week, the Heat, Lakers, and Thunder were the only realistic championship contenders. The Knicks, Celtics, and Nuggets were all just fun teams to follow until the playoffs brought the long-known hierarchy to fruition.
That said, there wasn’t a chance in hell the Lake Show could stop Westbook, Harden, and Durant on the floor together. Now, defenses can hone in on Westbrook and Durant, challenging the other three players on the court to beat them. The only guy who could realistically accept that challenge? Harden.
Regardless of the basketball implications of the deal, all blame inevitably circles back to Clay Bennett and the team’s ownership. Bennett, a native Oklahoman, first bought the Seattle SuperSonics back in 2006 with the stated intention of finding a way to keep them in Seattle. His true desire, to move the team to Oklahoma City, became evident soon thereafter, and a reality about a year later. After swindling the Seattle community for his native Oklahomans, he did so to a lesser degree with the Harden deal.
No, the Thunder isn’t going anywhere, and nor are its fans. But they should—Bennett threw away a shot at basketball immortality with this group, something the San Antonio Spurs achieved with an identical model, which would ultimately make more money. While Presti learned under R.C. Buford’s tutelage, the Spurs reeled off championships with a core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. They filled in the rest of the roster just fine, but Ginobili as a sixth man keyed that team’s sustained success. When he was injured, the team didn’t stand a chance of advancing in an unforgivable Western Conference.
People will, of course, point to Presti’s track record with pulling the plug financially in a number of similarly tenuous situations. Still, none was as drastic of a backbreaker as the Harden deal. It would be the equivalent of dealing a 10-years-younger version of Ginobili for a couple of unproven commodities. In OKC, his trade of former Hoya Jeff Green raised similar eyebrows for its potential effect on team morale. The difference is that Presti used Green to fill another glaring need in the middle, bringing over an experienced Kendrick Perkins fresh off a championship with the Boston Celtics.
Maybe I’ll bite my words when the Thunder reload and come out just as dangerous as before. Perhaps Jeremy Lamb develops into the next Harden or one of the draft picks the Thunder received as compensation turns out to be an adequate complement to Durant and Westbrook. But in the NBA, few things are definitive; so when a triumvirate like Durant, Westbook, and Harden comes around, it’s a magical connection no one should mess with. League history will always be marked by what could have been had the Beard remained in Oklahoma City. It’s too bad we’ll never find out.