May 3, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) hugs Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) after game six of the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at the Toyota Center. The Thunder defeated the Rockets 103-94. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Regretting the James Harden trade: OKC Thunder could have had 3 of best 4 players in NBA

If you’re an NBA blogger, then you read Bill Simmons’ NBA Trade Value Column.

He finished it up yesterday with LeBron James expectedly finishing first and Kevin Durant second.

Then it got interesting.

Simmons has obviously gotten a little too caught up in the NBA Playoffs because he ranked Stephen Curry third. I’ll give Simmons a pass here. It’s okay because watching Curry in these playoffs has just been so entertaining. Curry clearly does not have the third-highest trade value in the NBA.

Russell Westbrook came in number four and James Harden came in fifth. So if we eliminate Curry, then the Thunder could have had numbers two, three and four from the Simmons trade value column on their team this season. Considering that the top four players are all basically on max deals then it is safe to say that they are just about the four best players in the league or at least the four most valuable players you’d want to have going forward.

I know Thunder fans have thought about the Harden trade all season. Ultimately, everyone probably regrets it by now. The only reason I’m bringing it up again is because I was reminded yesterday while reading Simmons’ column that the Thunder basically could have had three of the best four players in the NBA on their roster for at least the next four years and probably longer.

The big question that still needs an answer is:

Is there still something as to why Sam Presti made this trade that makes sense?

I think there is. Simmons and most of the media really have ripped the Thunder for the Kevin Martin rental and the fact that Jeremy Lamb hasn’t played all season and that the Toronto pick is coming in a weak draft year.

Martin’s been bad but he is still probably the best possible replacement the Thunder could have gotten for Harden at the time (I know, they still shouldn’t have made the trade). Let’s not forget that Westbrook is hurt and if he wasn’t, given what we’re seeing from the rest of the league, wouldn’t the Thunder really look like the favorites in the Western Conference still? Haven’t you all noticed the Heat stumbling a little too and that Dwyane Wade is not himself? Maybe there would have been a chance of the Thunder beating Miami in the NBA Finals if Westbrook didn’t get hurt.

Also, remember how bad Reggie Jackson was last year? The Thunder had no choice but to sign Derek Fisher and get him out of the rotation. I don’t think anyone saw Jackson improving this much, this year. Jackson has been a poor man’s Westbrook in these playoffs and has really done an amazing job trying to replace him.

So we have the Thunder not playing two of their first round picks in Lamb and Perry Jones, III. I’m not worried about this. Those guys played well in the D-League and I think it is safe to fully expect them to improve and be ready to break into the rotation next year.

In two years, could Jackson, Lamb, Jones and whoever the Thunder pick in the first round this year (Gorgui Dieng, Cody Zeller, Alex Len) become as valuable as Harden would have been? In a way I think it’s possible.

You can’t rip the Thunder for planning for the next 10 years. I think we will one day look back and say that they successfully did that. They won’t burn out like the Suns or Sonics in the 90’s. None of those teams had Durant.

Worst-case scenario the Thunder will be the Dallas Mavericks from the 2000’s. They’ll always be competing to win the West. Maybe we won’t see the steady climb that we always expected but they’re not falling off the map, ever.

I don’t think this is better or safer than keeping Harden though. I wrote before the Harden trade happened that there was absolutely no reason for the Thunder not to keep him. I think that is still true.

What would have been the equivalent of a KD-Russ-Harden trio in the past?

Let’s try and come up with what would have been the equivalent of a trio as talented as these three in the past.

The goal is to find seasons where there are dominant players like LeBron is now on teams that just won the NBA title. I’m thinking Michael Jordan 1992 and Shaquille O’Neal 2001.

Then let’s try and find the three guys that you could similarly match up as the KD-Russ-Harden equivalents.

1992: What if a team had John Stockton, Clyde Drexler and Karl Malone?

2001: What if a team had Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson?

I like the 2001 comparison to what KD, Russ and Harden could have been like. It sounds crazy to look back and imagine a team having three guys like that. The Thunder could have easily been that.

Throw in the Ibaka factor too and it’d be like if Jermaine O’Neal was also on that team.

I know these aren’t perfect comparisons but I’m just trying to show what it would have been like back in the day if you could bunch that many talented players on the same team within the landscape of the NBA.

This is the reason why you could not have traded Harden. You had a chance to be something that had no precedent with those three guys and Ibaka. The supporting cast would have come. You could have given Kendrick Perkins the axe after this year and rolled with the trio, Ibaka, Collison, Sefolosha, Jackson and whatever rookies and cheap veterans you could find for the next six years while still staying under the luxury tax limit. It would have been possible.

So that’s enough regretting the Harden trade for one day. It was just impossible for my heart not to sink when seeing those ranks and remembering to myself that the Thunder could have had three of the best four players in the NBA on their team.

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