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A look back on the 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder

This was the last season for the prodigious Big Three

Los Angeles Lakers v Oklahoma City Thunder, Game 4

In the short time that the Oklahoma City Thunder have been a franchise, three MVPs have played in OKC.

Two of these players achieved this honor in Oklahoma while James Harden won the achievement for a brilliant, spell-binding season in Houston.

To have three MVPs on one team is highly unusual. There hasn’t been any other team that has drafted three players who have won MVPs in ten years.

All of that individual success translated into an NBA Finals appearance in 2012, a season where the Thunder put the entire league on notice.

In that season, Oklahoma City was a force to be reckoned with, the skill and athleticism overwhelmed the traditional Western Conference heavyweights.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks were dispatched quickly before Oklahoma City beat the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals to advance to the Thunder’s first Finals.

The last time that the franchise had made the Finals was in the Seattle days when Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp created magic in the Pacific Northwest.

However, the Thunder were too young, too inexperienced to win an NBA title against a veteran Miami Heat team that faced public humiliation if they lost in the Finals for the second year in a row.

Oklahoma City was expected to go on and become a dynasty if they locked up their core, there would be championships in the future for the Thunder, a loss against the Heat was not a big deal.

As Oklahoma City went into that summer, everything seemed fine.

Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka had been secured long-term; it was only Harden who was the outstanding player to sort out for the front office.

Contract talks had been difficult as the financial side of the deal was hard to figure out, and Harden harbored a desire to run his offense.

The Thunder did not want to pay the luxury tax at all; no matter the sum, it was a principle that made negotiations tricky as Harden believed he was worth a maximum contract.

The other aspect of the extension talks was that Harden would have liked a more significant share of responsibility on the team if he chose to re-sign.

If he could not grow into being a lead option, Harden preferred a trade.

The talks continued late into the off-season before the Thunder decided to trade Harden, neither side could find a solution that worked.

Thunder General Manager Sam Presti did not want his star player to leave for nothing at the end of the season.

Harden was traded to Houston for Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin, and a future first-round pick, which eventually became Steven Adams.

It was a devastating trade; losing a player of Harden’s ability meant that building a team to contend over a five-year cycle was much more difficult.

While the Thunder received assets which would help in the upcoming season, the long-term was more uncertain.

Surprisingly, the Thunder became the ideal example of ‘What Might Have Been,’ especially when you consider the success that each player has gone to achieve.

Kevin Durant won an MVP in Oklahoma City and led the league in scoring multiple times, but he eventually decided to go elsewhere.

Durant joined the Golden State Juggernauts in 2016 and won two championships. Westbrook stayed home, won an MVP before his time with the Thunder eventually fizzled out.

Harden was the first of the core players to leave, his departure came in October 2012, four months after the Finals.

Harden found success in Houston with head coach Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system, he won an MVP and has gone some way to re-define how the game is played.

The individual success achieved by all of these players raises the question, what if the Thunder found a way to keep Harden?

The actual financials of keeping Harden are not that strenuous, even as Oklahoma City tried to avoid the luxury tax. Kendrick Perkins, the veteran center, would have been amnestied, which would have cleared a slither of the cap just large enough to pay Harden the max.

The ramifications of retaining Harden would mean that the bench would look pretty thin in terms of talent with the Thunder relying on young project players and vets on minimum deals.

Despite those issues, the Thunder likely wins a championship, and the team is stacked in terms of top-end talent even if Harden never fully realizes his MVP form.

Oklahoma City had a dynasty in their hands, and it went away from the Thunder with Harden being traded, the trade also placed additional pressure on the two remaining ball-handlers.

Durant and Westbrook both had to carry a more massive load with Harden gone, and both of them needed to be healthy for the Thunder to play well.

When Durant went down in 2014, Oklahoma City seriously struggled to replace his offensive production, and the third star-like Harden would have been able to step into this role and contribute.

In a way, a third all-star caliber playmaker is insurance if one player goes down for an extended period.

In retrospect, it was a brilliant basketball team to watch. I do not usually go back and watch old games, but for this team, I did.

The one aspect of this Thunder side that struck me was the independence everybody played the game.

The confidence for all three guys was evident. That confidence led them to do amazing things like Westbrook annihilating the rim, Durant draining contested threes, or Harden euro-stepping his way into a layup.

The team played without fear and stepped up to the plate against the heavyweights in the Western Conference.

That, to me, was impressive.

A lot of players have spoken about the difficulty of playing against players who you idolized. Yet, in the series against the Lakers, Westbrook went straight at Kobe Bryant without any hesitation.

This OKC team was also aesthetically pleasing to watch from a pure entertainment perspective. There are a few teams in the league who has achieved a lot of success, but they are boring to watch, the Rockets last year fit this statement to a tee.

The efficiency and individual skill can be appreciated, but the lengthy isolation style where one man baits defenders into fouls repeatedly is not my cup of tea.

The Thunder were successful and brilliant to watch; it was a joy to see Kevin Durant hit a hot streak on offense where he knocked down to look after look.

Westbrook’s athleticism was jaw-dropping, but Harden’s crafty, off-beat game took your breath away.

Scott Brooks frequently ran Harden-Nick Collison pick and roll, which I feel displayed Harden’s abilities to its fullest extent.

Harden’s artful, subtle passes into Collison manipulated space and always resulted in a bucket.

The 2011-12 team was a perfect blend of shooting, play-making, and defense, a combination which the Thunder have struggled to replicate since Harden was traded.

The balance between all of these factors is an important reason is why the Thunder were able to make the Finals while their core was still incredibly young.

Oklahoma City faced off against the Heat with a nucleus of players who were in their early twenties! Which is unheard of these days.

The Spurs, a home-grown dynasty, became truly dominant once their core players spent a few years in the league.

The ‘What if’ question will always be associated with this Thunder team. What if the Thunder had kept Harden? Would they have made it back to the Finals? Only time will tell.

There will always be the thought of the Thunder retaining Harden.

However, these questions should not define the team that this Oklahoma City side was.

It was young, hungry, and incredibly talented.

It was a team that played freely and without fear, a maturity that is not usually associated with young groups.