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The biggest mistake in franchise history — Oklahoma City Thunder edition

$5 million was all it took to keep three MVPs on the same team.
Oklahoma City Thunder guards James Harden, Russell Westbrook and forward Kevin Durant

James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant

Welcome to our summer series entitled "The biggest mistake in franchise history," where we examine some of the greatest regrets of every team in the NBA. We tackled the Orlando Magic last time and today, let's take a look at the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Exactly a decade ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder looked like the next dynasty that was about to rule the NBA. Led by a core of future MVPs - Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden - OKC was on the verge of becoming the greatest organically built team in NBA history. That is, until the luxury tax, injuries, and breakups with their superstars got in the way.

The Thunder's greatest downfall in franchise history started because their core couldn't find success no matter how dominant they were. It's rare to draft 3 eventual MVPs in 3 consecutive seasons, and many thought OKC was on the verge of a historic triumph.

Thunder GM Sam Presti's meticulously crafted master plan was dismantled after one domino fell after another. Let's examine how that one domino led to the most disappointing breakup in league history.

The domino effect

As mentioned above, before Oklahoma City made noise in the Western Conference, they struck gold for multiple years in a row in the draft. They selected Durant 2nd in the 2007 NBA Draft (thanks for passing up on him for Greg Oden, Portland!), Westbrook 4th in the 2008 draft (along with Serge Ibaka as their 24th pick), and Harden 3rd in the 2009 draft. Here's a brief summary of their timeline together.

2011 - 2012

  • After making noise in the Western Conference for a couple of years, the Thunder finally broke out of their hump in 2011 when they eliminated the San Antonio Spurs to book a trip to the NBA Finals. It was their first Finals appearance since the Seatle Supersonics did it in 1996. Unfortunately, OKC ran into a hungry LeBron James (gunning for his first championship) and Miami Heat team that eventually beat the Thunder in 5 games.
  • OKC was hopeful that they could run it back, but in August that year, they needed to extend both Harden and Ibaka. The Thunder decided to offer Ibaka a $48 million 4-year extension which cast a shadow of doubt for Harden, who also wanted a max contract.
  • Unfortunately for the Thunder, they didn't want to go over the luxury cap, so they offered Harden a deal worth $5 million dollars short of the max. This rubbed Harden the wrong way, who no longer wanted to sacrifice for his team's sake. Harden said, "I felt like I was already made a sacrifice coming off the bench and doing whatever it takes to help the team, and they weren't willing to help me."
  • Harden eventually wanted to depart from OKC so they traded him to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and draft picks.

2012 - 2013

  • No Harden? No problem. OKC might've lost their Sixth Man of the Year, but that didn't stop them from dismantling the league. Led by Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka, the motivated Thunder managed to secure the best record in the Western Conference (60-22) by becoming the 4th youngest team in NBA history to win 60 games. During the year, they had the league's first-ranked offense and fourth-best defense.
  • But the Thunder's dominance didn't translate in the Playoffs after Westbrook tore his MCL thanks to Patrick Beverley, who bumped into his knee. OKC then lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in 5 games in the Western Conference Semifinals due to injuries to their superstar.
  • OKC was looking to bounce back that summer by using their 12th pick on Steven Adams, who became a massive piece for the Thunder moving forward.

2013 - 2014

  • With Adams in the mix, the Thunder started the season the way they did the previous year. They went on a dominant 23-4 run, again solidifying their place on top of the Western Conference. They finished second place in the Western Conference despite Westbrook's recurring injuries.
  • Westbrook was injured almost the whole season as he was sidelined till February. He had to go through multiple surgeries to get his knee right. This was also the same year Durant won his MVP.
  • Westbrook eventually returned for the Playoffs, but OKC then lost Ibaka in Game 3 in the Western Conference Finals with a calf strain injury. Ibaka returned in Game 3 and helped keep the series close, but the Thunder couldn't seize the Spurs in that series as they lost in 6 games.
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2014 - 2015

  • After Westbrook's troubling injury-riddled season, it was then Durant's turn to battle health issues as he was diagnosed with a Jones fracture injury in his foot. KD eventually returned in February but had to undergo another surgery to remove the discomfort in his foot. Durant was ruled out in March for the whole season after the injury.
  • It didn't help that Westbrook also had to miss time early in the season because of a fractured hand injury. Durant and Westbrook's injuries dug them into a hole they couldn't escape from. They finished ninth in the Western Conference this year.
  • As a result, OKC fired their head coach Scott Brooks (which raised some eyebrows in the organization) and hired Billy Donovan.

2015 - 2016

  • A healthy and vengeful Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka helped push the Thunder to 55 wins this season for the 3rd seed in the Western Conference.
  • OKC eliminated the Spurs in 6 games but ran into the 73-9 Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
  • OKC fought against the 73-9 Warriors and was even up 3-1 in that series. But the Warriors battled back thanks to Klay Thompson's legendary Game 6 (where he knocked down 11 3-pointers) performance. In Game 7, the Thunder were up 48-42 by halftime, but they choked as the Warriors came back swinging to close the series.

2016 Summer

  • One of the most controversial offseason moves in NBA history happened this summer after Durant decided to join the team that he couldn't beat in the previous season — the Warriors. It continues to be an all-time puzzling move by a superstar as it was officially the first and most damaging step to the Thunder's downfall.
  • In the same summer, OKC traded Ibaka to the Magic for Victor Oladipo before the Thunder found out Durant wanted to go to the Warriors. OKC hoped that acquiring Oladipo would help Durant with the scoring load, but alas, they traded Ibaka and Durant in the same summer.
  • This also happened to be the summer Westbrook signed a 3-year extension to prove a point that he's not going anywhere.

Life without Durant

In 2017, The Thunder moved on from Durant by building their team around Westbrook, who responded by achieving 42 triple-doubles in 2016. Westbrook won the MVP in the same year after averaging 31 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists per game and had 42 triple-doubles in the same year, which marked the most in NBA history.

Unfortunately, Westbrook couldn't carry the Thunder after falling against his ex-teammate Harden and the Rockets (1-4) in the first round of the Playoffs in 2017. This was the same year Durant won his first championship and Finals MVP, rubbing it more into OKC's face.

The Thunder then tried to give it one more run with Westbrook after acquiring Paul George for Victor Oladipo. They also acquired Carmelo Anthony in hopes that he'd revive his career in Oklahoma. The Thunder rewarded Westbrook with a $200 million extension (yes, the same contract that eventually became the worst in the league).

Unfortunately, the Thunder couldn't get off the hump with their new core after failing two straight seasons in a row and being sent home by Damian Lillard's famous buzzer-beating 3-pointer that put the nail in the coffin for the Westbrook-Thunder era. They eventually let go of George, Anthony, and Westbrook the summer after.

Another hopeful rebuild in the making

The Thunder had the superstars and pieces to form one of the greatest dynasties of all time, but they failed to do so, and as a result, they had to go through another rebuilding process after finally letting go of Westbrook. Since then, OKC was left with Chris Paul (who they acquired for Westbrook) but eventually traded to the Pheonix Suns after one season.

Currently, the franchise is recovering from its greatest downfall. They're already in the process of developing a young core headlined by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chet Holmgren, Josh Giddey, and more incoming draft picks in the future.

With Presti's strong ability and history to strike gold in the draft and develop his players, who knows? Maybe the Thunder will see another dynasty form before their eyes again shortly. Although hopefully, this time, it doesn't end up becoming one of the most significant breakups in NBA history. 

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