This column reflects the opinion of the writer and does not in any way reflect the views of The Stanford Daily.
Amid controversy surrounding the lack of fluidity between newly acquired superstar forward Kevin Durant and franchise-legend Steph Curry, the Slim Reaper hosted his prior franchise, the Westbrook-led Oklahoma City (OKC) Thunder. Despite valiant effort and yet another Westbrook triple-double, the overmatched Thunder fell by the wayside in Oakland, falling victim to yet another Warriors blowout, 121-100.
The seven-foot shooter out of Texas played ruthlessly and demonstratively against the team that drafted and raised him for nine seasons in the NBA before his controversial exit to the Finals runner-up during this past offseason. “Easy Money Sniper” sniped 13 of his 16 attempts for a season-high 40 points, also racking up a double-double with 12 rebounds.
Yet, more than the play on the court, eyes inevitably followed the drama between the two estranged superstars, once synonymous on the court and now bitter rivals, and the intense rivalry didn’t disappoint. In a highly entertaining third quarter that saw the Warriors take control, Westbrook threw down a hammer of a dunk and in his celebration turned to Durant, saying “Don’t jump.”
In the midst of all this feuding, however, the ESPN broadcast showed a very interesting graphic surrounding the 2011 Thunder core, a three-man team of Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kevin Durant. Analyst Jeff Van Gundy remarked, seemingly in surprise, that all three could be considered for the MVP award at the end of the season with their play, much to the OKC fan’s chagrin.
Van Gundy’s discovery piqued my curiosity, and I quickly began to question: Has there ever been a bigger potential for a franchise that ultimately never won a ring?
The Westbrook-Durant-Harden trio played together for three years, following the Thunder drafting Harden as the third pick in the draft, making the conference finals and NBA finals in back-to-back seasons following two years of Lakers dominance to conclude the 2000s. During the team’s finals run, Durant averaged 27.7 points per game (PPG), teammate Westbrook averaged 21.7 PPG and Harden 12.2 PPG as the Sixth Man of the year. Their current play shows an obvious potential for team growth had the team stayed together.
Sure, some could point to the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal dynasty that could have been, save the Colorado trial and subsequent off-the-field problems. However, the 2002-03 NBA Finals loss to the bad-boy Pistons showed cracks within the Lakers championship dynasty under the helm of Phil Jackson.
While Kobe’s usage rate skyrocketed and eventually ran off to win titles in Los Angeles, O’Neal’s time spent and title in the Heat uniform most likely highlights his post-Lakers years and his quick decline in an increasingly efficient league at the end of his career, ironically in a Celtics uniform.
Meanwhile, four years after the split with Harden and fresh off the split with Durant, all three of the Thunder’s former stars are having MVP-caliber seasons, at even higher efficiencies. On the star-studded Warriors, Durant scores effortlessly while also providing key rim support, averaging 25.8 points per game and a team-leading 27.4 PER.
Harden’s MVP season with the Houston Rockets has turned around a struggling Rockets organization from a low Western Conference seed to a team on pace for a 60-win season and a record three-point season for the franchise. The Rockets, led solely by a driving Harden surrounded by shooting bigs and guards, have quickly entered themselves in the upper tier conversation by simply riding the former OKC sixth man’s player creativity.
Not to mention that Westbrook’s triple-double average on the season bid still doesn’t make up for the fact that OKC still ranks seventh in the Western Conference standings and would ultimately have to face the Warriors, Spurs or Rockets in the first round, all of which make victory unlikely for the Thunder.
Ultimately, NBA fans can never truly know the extent to which the three superstars could have played with each other. While Durant, Harden and Westbrook all provide superstar talent, the NBA championship requires a team of five players on the same page. Yet, when seeing the creativity and unique ability of each former Thunder star, one can only wonder how OKC and the NBA landscape could have panned out.
Remind Lorenzo Rosas that even the best teams can blow a 3-1 lead at enzor9 ‘at’ stanford.edu.