When the Thunder made the NBA Finals in 2012, the core featured a budding trio of future Hall of Famers in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. At the time, it looked like Durant and Westbrook were the faces of the franchise, while Harden was playing third fiddle to the two. Harden was finishing games and playing stellar basketball at the time, but he was coming off the bench.
Harden asked for a trade and was traded to the Houston Rockets. That trade has been talked about as one of the biggest “what ifs” as Harden ultimately won three scoring titles and an MVP while with Houston. At the time, Houston wasn’t the only trade partner trying to make a move. The Washington Wizards wanted some of the James Harden magic too and were willing to give up Bradley Beal.
Here is the blockbuster trade of the James Harden-Bradley Beal swap that never went down.
The Trade Details
Washington Wizards Receive: James Harden
Oklahoma City Thunder: Bradley Beal, Chris Singleton
The trade headlined James Harden going to the Wizards. Harden was coming off a season where he won Sixth Man of the Year, averaging 16.8 points per game. Beal was the No. 3 overall pick by the Wizards in the 2012 NBA Draft, while Chris Singleton was coming off a rookie campaign where he averaged 4.6 points and 3.5 rebounds.
Beal told Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on the All the Smoke podcast that he remembers how the near deal went down. The deal could have been a draft night blockbuster. Beal was projected to be a top-3 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and said that his agent said there was a chance he could go to OKC.
“We’re sitting in the draft room, sure enough, my agent is tapping me,” said Beal, via All the Smoke podcast. “He’s like, ‘You might go to OKC.’ They were going to trade up to get me, trade James to Washington for me. I would have been in OKC with KD [Durant] and Russ [Westbrook]. … That was a last-minute decision. It was almost done.”
But... Wizards didn't want to sign to offer a long-term contract to James Harden.
Washington Didn’t Want To Commit To Harden Long-Term
According to Michael Lee of the Washington Post, the Wizards turned down the trade with the Thunder because team owner Ted Leonsis was unwilling to commit to Harden long term and for the amount of money. Harden was coming off a season that saw him win Sixth Man of the Year but didn’t want to invest the amount of money to keep him around.
“The Washington Wizards turned down a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder for James Harden this summer because team owner Ted Leonis was unwilling to commit what would have been a roughly $80 million, five-year contract for the high scoring player, according to multiple people with knowledge of the proposed deal,” wrote Lee.
According to Lee, both Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld and Thunder General Manager Sam Presti all declined to comment when asked about the trade. There was also one Wizards official that declined the trade ever being discussed. Beal was eventually drafted No. 3 overall by the Wizards.
Thunder Projected Lineup If Trade Happened
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Bradley Beal
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Kendrick Perkins
Durant was coming off a season where he averaged 28.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game. It was his third straight season that he led the league in scoring. Westbrook averaged 23.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 1.7 steals. On top of that, you had Serge Ibaka, who was rising towards being an All-Defensive caliber player. Imagine if the Thunder acquired a pure scoring guard like Beal.
Instead of trading Harden to the Wizards, the team made a deal with the Rockets, where they acquired Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks, and a second-round pick. Those picks became Steven Adams, Mitch McGary, and Alex Abrines. Beal averaged 13.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and shot 38.6% from outside. You have to think those numbers would have been better if he played with both Westbrook and Durant.
Wizards Projected Lineup If Trade Happened
PG: John Wall
SG: James Harden
SF: Trevor Ariza
C: Emeka Okafor
Around this time, John Wall was starting to grow into a top point guard. Wall was coming off his second season in the league. In 66 games, Wall averaged 16.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 8.0 assists. When Beal joined the Wizards, the team had a very dangerous backcourt. Wall was a five-time All-Star from 2014 to 2018. Imagine what could have been done if Harden came to town instead.
Harden averaged 25.9 points per game in his first season with the Rockets. That backcourt could have been even better. Around this time, Okafor lasted just four games with the Wizards, which led to the team acquiring Marcin Gortat the following season, who was a very underrated center. Assuming the team keeps both Trevor Ariza and Nene, the Wizards could have been a Conference Finals contender.
The Rockets acquired Harden and he became an immediate star. The lowest season point average Harden finished with was 25.4 points per game. He led the team to the Conference Finals two times, falling to the Golden State Warriors in both appearances, including a Game 7 nailbiter that saw Harden shoot one of the worst games in his career. He never made the NBA Finals despite playing with All-Stars like Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook. After a long tenure with the team, the Rockets traded Harden to the Nets.
As for the Thunder, Durant and Westbrook nearly made the NBA Finals two more times on their own. In 2014, Durant won the MVP and his fourth scoring title, but the Thunder lost to the Spurs in the Conference Finals. The team nearly made it again in 2016 but was defeated by the Warriors despite owning a 3-1 lead. Durant then joined the Warriors, won two championships, and the Thunder haven’t returned to the Conference Finals since. Westbrook averaged a triple-double in 2016-2017 and won an MVP.
The Wizards rolled the dice with Wall and Beal and enjoyed some success from 2014-2018. Wall made the All-Star Game each of those seasons. Wall averaged double-digit assists three times. The Wizards made the playoffs four of the five seasons but were defeated in the second round three times. Their best chance of making the Conference Finals came in 2016-2017, but the team was defeated by the Boston Celtics in Game 7 in the semifinals.
It begs the question of what would have happened if this trade happened? Beal didn’t secure his first season where he averaged 20 points per game or more until 2016-2017. By this time, Durant was in his first season with the Warriors. With that said, Beal was consistently around 15 to 17 points per game. Kevin Martin played one season with the Thunder and averaged 14.0 points per game. Beal would be an upgrade for the 2012-2013 season as well as the future.
The Thunder would have also never gotten Steven Adams, but the team might have kept Ibaka around longer and not traded him after the 2015-2016 season. The core of Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka, and Beal could have also stuck around longer and grown to something special. It’s hard to tell, but this had the potential of being something special.
As for the Wizards, Harden would have joined the Wizards at the right time. Give it one year for the team to find the chemistry and this duo would have been the best backcourt in the Eastern Conference. Assuming that the Wizards were able to get the chemistry down for the 2013-2014 season, it would have been the last season LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh played together in Miami. Assuming LeBron goes back to Cleveland, would this Washington duo be enough to beat Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and LeBron? The world will never know now.