In the summer of 2012, the Oklahoma City Thunder were off on a trip to the NBA Finals. The team lost to the Miami Heat in five games, which featured a stellar group of future Hall of Famers. The group of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka were in their 20s and looked like they could run the table for years to come.
Instead, Harden wanted out. He wanted to be the star of his team. He didn’t like his role, so the Thunder made a move with the Houston Rockets. However, there was a time when the Golden State Warriors were interested in Harden and made an offer. The deal was close and it could have set up one of the best duos in the Western Conference.
Here is the blockbuster trade that nearly happened.
Golden State Warriors Receive: James Harden
Oklahoma City Thunder Receive: Richard Jefferson or Andris Biedrins, Klay Thompson
The Rockets saw Harden as a star, which is why they made a move. The Warriors saw the same talent. Harden eventually became a scoring champion and MVP, which would have fit well alongside a future MVP on their own in Steph Curry. With two lethal scorers, inside and out, the Warriors would have had one thought dynamic duo to stop.
According to Bill Simmons, who was working for ESPN at the time, the Warriors were the first team to call General Manager Sam Presti. At the time, the 2012 NBA Draft was looming and it was expected that the Warriors were going to draft Thompson. The Thunder had an intrigue with this pick, which would have been the major part of the deal with a player that had an expiring contract.
“But here's the real killer,” said Simmons. “Multiple sources have told me that, when Oklahoma City's Sam Presti decided to shop James Harden, Golden State was his first call. He wanted Klay Thompson and a pick. The Warriors would only consider the trade if Oklahoma City took back Biedrins or Jefferson for 2013 expiring, knowing they'd get crushed by the luxury tax in 2014 with Harden's extension plus Steph Curry's extension plus David Lee plus Bogut/Jefferson/Biedrins.”
Both Biedrins and Jefferson had expiring contracts that lasted through the 2013-14 season. In Jefferson’s final seasons, he was making about $10 million, while Biedrins was making $9 million. The combined money would have helped with an extension for Harden, but as Simmons said, it would have created luxury tax issues in the future.
Sam Presti Knew It Wouldn’t Work
According to Simmons, after the numbers were calculated, Presti thought this trade was not going to work. Not to mention, he didn’t want to take on an expiring contract. He decided to explore other options before giving the Warriors the cold shoulder. It also led to calls with the Wizards and eventually the Rockets, which is where he was eventually traded.
“At that point, Presti went to Washington (offering Harden for Bradley Beal, and unbelievably getting turned down), then Houston (where the shopping heated up). Presti never ended up calling Golden State back,” wrote Simmons.
However, Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News made an interesting point. Kawakami wrote that it had nothing to do with the contracts altogether. It was more or less because Presti didn’t want his time wasted. He had to make a move with Harden before the market dried up. With the luxury tax issues the Warriors were going to have, Kawakami said that Presti ultimately knew this trade was destined to fail.
“This keeps coming up and coming up and coming up–most recently again here,” wrote Kawakami. “But… The turned-down-Harden part of it is not correct because, at least for the Warriors, that was a practically impossible deal to put together and OKC almost certainly knew it when they called the Warriors.”
The talk about Harden and Beal not getting done is another discussion, but it makes complete sense why Presti didn’t make this call. The Warriors were likely going to realize they couldn’t make the financial commitment. It would have been four years of Thompson on a rookie contract for Harden to play one season and then eventually leave.
Warriors Projected Lineup If Trade Happened
PG: Steph Curry
SG: James Harden
SF: Harrison Barnes
PF: David Lee
C: Andrew Bogut
In a world where this was going to work, you would have potentially had a championship contender in 2012-13. In his first season with the Rockets, Harden averaged 25.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 1.8 steals. With Mark Jackson still the head coach of the Warriors, you would have probably seen those numbers take off. The combination of Harden driving to the basket and Curry’s ability to score would have made this a lethal one-two punch.
It would have led to an interesting hypothetical if Steve Kerr would have ever landed with the Warriors. If he did, we might have seen Harden play defense with the addition of Draymond Green later on. With that said, Harden’s years in Houston were halted by these Warriors teams. With that defense not in play, it would have been tough to stop Harden and Curry’s ability to score.
Thunder Projected Lineup If Trade Happened
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Klay Thompson
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Kendrick Perkins
On the other side of the trade, you are talking about the other championship contender in the West, along with the Spurs, of course, but they are not included in this trade. You would have Durant, who was fresh off winning a scoring title. He would then win another scoring title in 2014 and win the MVP Award. Westbrook was the perfect complement to Durant, but then you add the missing piece to the puzzle. A true three-point shooter with exceptional wing defense. With Ibaka in the middle, this team would have all the components to make a run to the title during the 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons, where Durant came up just short.
This team would be well-rounded. They could have matched the Spurs with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard at nearly every position. The Spurs knocked the Thunder out of the playoffs in 2014, while the Warriors, with Thompson, knocked the Thunder out in 2016. That may not happen with Thompson on the team instead of Kevin Martin.
Harden was eventually traded to the Rockets for Kevin Martin, and Jeremy Lamb, as well as two first-round picks and a second-round pick. The picks were used on Steven Adams, Mitch McGary, and Alex Abrines. Adams was ultimately the only true contributor in 2014 and 2016 where he was the starting center of those teams. McGary and Abrines never panned out and didn’t stay long with the team.
As for Martin, he played one season with the Thunder. He averaged 14.0 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.4 assists. He was then acquired by the Timberwolves. Martin was supposed to make up for the scoring loss by Harden, but he was never on the 2014 and 2016 Conference Finals teams, so it feels like his addition in the trade was a major loss.
As for Biedrins and Jefferson, they were eventually traded, but not to the Thunder. The Warriors were able to orchestrate a three-team trade where the Jazz took both expiring contracts and the Nuggets traded the Warriors Andre Iguodala. This has major significance in team history because Iguodala was the recipient of the 2015 Finals MVP Award for his offensive and defensive efforts in that series. Since joining the Warriors, he has become a fan favorite, where he is currently playing today.
Thompson grew into the type of player that Presti saw. Thompson became an All-Star talent, All-NBA, and All-Defensive player with the Warriors. More importantly, he grew up with Curry as the second member of the “Splash Bros.” With their ability to connect from three-point range, it helped change the landscape of the NBA and the way that teams run their offense. If it wasn’t Curry splashing in a trey, it was Thompson on the other side.
The combination of Curry and Thompson, along with Iguodala, and others, helped the Warriors make the NBA Finals five straight seasons from 2015 to 2019. That included winning the championship in 2015, 2017, and 2018. The team also won an NBA-record 73 games in 2015-16. Had Harden joined the Warriors, that would have likely meant no Steve Kerr, Iguodala, and other pieces. The biggest question would have been how long he stayed as well. Most fans are probably thrilled this trade never went down in the end.