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Four years ago, an upstart Oklahoma City Thunder team was blasting its way into the 2012 NBA Finals on the strength of four stud young draft picks — Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden — who were each 23 or younger, supremely athletic and immensely talented. They seemed destined to stake their claim as the preeminent Western Conference powerhouse for the next decade or so.
Things haven’t worked out as planned thus far.
The Miami Heat went on to take out the Thunder in five games, in what appeared at the time to be the first of many such showdowns. But Oklahoma City then traded Harden to the Houston Rockets prior to the start of the 2012-13 regular season, after the sides couldn’t agree on a contract extension. Harden wanted a max contract that would’ve paid out $61 million over four years, while the Thunder were only willing to offer as much as $54 million.
It was a controversial decision, made as part of a long-term plan to avoid ever having to pay the league’s new and harsher luxury tax. As it turns out, though, Oklahoma City could’ve given Harden his max deal and still only have had to pay the tax for, at most, one season. The Thunder has since paid the tax twice in the three years since he’s been gone.
Over those three years, a Westbrook torn right meniscus ended any shot at a title in 2013, an Ibaka strained left calf contributed to the team’s premature playoff exit in 2014, and an improperly healed Durant Jones fracture in his right foot led to the Thunder missing the playoffs outright in 2015.
In that space of time, competition at the top end of the Western Conference stiffened. Stephen Curry established himself as the best shooter and his Golden State Warriors the best team in NBA history, while the San Antonio Spurs brilliantly reinvigorated their aging core with acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Now we’re left wondering if a team once projected as an NBA Finals mainstay can return even once.
Durant will be 28 to start the 2016-17 season. The lanky 19-year-old rookie from the University of Texas has since collected an MVP trophy, four scoring titles, five (and soon to be six) NBA First-Team selections and seven All-Star Game appearances, but he doesn’t have an NBA title to his name. Read more…