Who would have thought in 2012 when James Harden was traded to the Rockets, effectively taking the money and running from the Thunder, that he could possibly win a championship before them?
Harden was more interested in being the main man than a winning a championship back then, declining the offer from the Thunder of 4-years $52-$55 million plus the chance of an NBA Championship, to sign with the Rockets for 5-years $80 million. The extra money, or more likely the extra minutes and responsibility, saw Harden take on being the number one man putting up some improved numbers in 2012-’13 of 25.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.8 assist and 1.8 steals per game up from 16.8/4.1/3.7/1.0 in his final season with the Thunder.
After the Rockets signed Dwight Howard in the off-season making them a genuine threat in the Western Conference, Harden now finds himself in a 1A-1B type scenario. At this point, Harden and Howard have a much better relationship than Bryant and Howard ever had and this has translated into a 44-20 record and currently 4th place in the Western Conference. It’s still early days and it could be a honeymoon period for Howard and Harden, but at this stage there’s no hint of this duo being fraught with personal issues in the near future.
Durant and Westbrook are already known as a lethal duo and with younger players in Steven Adams, Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson on the improve, depth is becoming less and less of an issue. Both Durant and Westbrook can put the team on their back, or when one of them is in the zone step back and facilitate. This team filled with youth, skill and growing experience has one goal and thats a championship.
The Rockets and Thunder clearly hold some animosity towards each other. It starts with the Thunder, and their fans in particular, wanting to beat James Harden then spirals into a number of handbag throwing incidents on court, namely Patrick Beverley vs Russell Westbrook. This animosity coupled with the fact these two teams are there or there a bouts in terms of competing for a championship means we could be in for one of the best short team rivalries of the next 10 years.
Right now, the Thunder hold the edge in this championship race. The Rockets are short on playoff experience outside of Dwight Howard and even Harden wouldn’t be considered a post season veteran. His first postseason as the star of a team was ended by none other than the Thunder in the first round of last seasons playoffs. Not only that, they are effectively a ‘new’ team since the addition of Dwight Howard. Howard’s LA nightmare is enough proof that it takes more than 82 games to become accustomed to teammates and coaches and really get in sync with the program. Only the most optimistic of Rockets fans would have gone into this season expecting NBA Finals glory, Thunder fans on the other had would be well within their rights to consider the season a failure if they don’t lift the Larry O’Brien trophy in June.
The Thunder might hold the advantage now in terms of the respective teams and chemistry, but their run of being championship contenders coincides with that of James, Wade and Bosh of the Miami Heat who could well become known as an all-time great trio. Not only that, the ageless Spurs have reared their old heads to hang around long enough to make yet another ‘unexpected’ championship run, creating another all-time great hurdle for this Thunder team that has it’s sights set on making the NBA Finals.
So should the Thunder not be crowned champions in the next few years, will the core of this Thunder team stay together long enough to ride out this wave of all-time greats, or will they split up and see the new-look Rockets swoop in and take the prize?
Kevin Durant becomes a free agent in 2016, potentially breaking up this Thunder core and thus opening up the opportunity for the Rockets to claim top spot in the West, assuming of course the Spurs have finally started their decline and no other teams pop up out of no where. While speculation is rife already, Durant is saying all the right things if you’re a Thunder fan.
In September, Durant answered questions during a Q&A session with Thunder fans:
“I like where I’m at right now. I enjoy playing for OKC,” he said. “As of today, I love it there, man. I want to be there. I love the fans, I love my team, I love everything about the city. I don’t have any plans to move.”
Rumours are also circulating about the Rockets and their potential play for Carmelo Anthony in the off-season, according to Matt Moore of CBS Sports. This could suggest they are far from settled on their potential championship team or it could suggest they know themselves that they aren’t quite ready to make that championship run. The Rockets have put together their team with a championship in mind but know it’s a little way down the road yet, but if this season is anything to go by, it might be approaching a little quicker than expected.
In the minds of most, the Thunder are a few paces ahead in this race but the Rockets look set for a big finish. They are coming together well and still looking to add pieces while the Thunder have done all the hard work but need to be around in June to put it into practice. For every season the Thunder don’t win, the gap looks set to close and if they don’t get it done soon, James Harden and his Houston Rockets might just overtake them and put the Thunders inaugural NBA Championship on hold a little longer.