Halfway through the NBA season, one of the more exciting storylines has been a deep, diverse MVP race.
This year, reasonable arguments could be made for several players, a far cry from years past, like last year, when Stephen Curry wrapped up the award in the first month, or in seasons when LeBron James was far and away the most devastating player in the league.
This season there seems to be a consensus of the top three candidates, and it must come as a cruel irony for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Currently, the favourite would likely be James Harden, who under the guidance of Mike D’Antoni, has been unleashed as the league’s deadliest point guard. Trailing close behind him would likely be Russell Westbrook, who, following the departure of Kevin Durant, has become a one-man wrecking crew, doing it all for the Thunder to average a triple-double. And third would likely be Kevin Durant, who, freed of the weight of a my-turn, your-turn partnership with Westbrook, has become a deadly, versatile sniper on the most stacked offence in the NBA.
While it may feel like ancient history, not long ago, these three players comprised the core of the most promising, exciting team in the league — the Thunder.
The Thunder ultimately broke up that core following a Finals loss to the Miami Heat in the 2011-12 season. Facing the prospect of heavy tax penalties to keep all three players (and some wonky contract behaviour by the NBA, as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst recently explained), the Thunder ultimately decided to ship out Harden to the Rockets. The Thunder never made it back to the Finals, decimated by key injuries during playoff series, then, ultimately falling short in last year’s Western Conference Finals, blowing a 3-1 lead to the Warriors. Durant, of course, joined the Warriors shortly thereafter.
Ironically, this season, all three players are thriving, in part, because they have been allowed to spread their wings, albeit it in different ways.
The Rockets’ uptempo, spread-out offence allows Harden to go to work picking apart defences. A crafty ball-handler who can get to the rim at will, Harden skis downhill and once the defence reacts, will fling a pass to the open man. Rinse and repeat.
It’s impossible to capture Westbrook’s free-range havoc in one play, but this end-to-end effort in a 36-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist performance against the Kings is representative of Westbrook’s relentlessness. Westbrook is using up a league-high 41% of his team’s possessions, and it feels like every turbo-speed drive for a dunk or drop-off pass and coast-to-coast sprint is needed to keep the Thunder afloat.
Durant’s success in Golden State, meanwhile, differs from Harden and Westbrook. While they have succeeded by gobbling up possessions and running the show, we’re seeing Durant at his most efficient because he’s lessened his burden on offence. He’s shooting a career-high 54% from the field while still scoring 26 points per game, and he’s freed up other parts of his game, like his playmaking, rebounding, and rim protection.
Additionally, Golden State’s high-powered offence has increased his catch-and-shoot opportunities. 47% of his shots come after 0 dribbles this year, up from 38% last year.
Those Thunder teams remain one of the big what-ifs in NBA history. In 2011, the Thunder had 23-year-old Durant, 23-year-old Westbrook, and 22-year-old Harden just beginning their ascendance into the NBA elite. While teams like the Thunder have long struggled to keep every part of a promising core, few have arguably had three of the league’s top five players sitting in their lap, not yet at their prime.
It’s impossible to know if these three players ever could have succeeded at once on the same team. As all three players expanded their games (which are largely ball-dominant), it’s feasible that their individual skills would have overlapped, eventually hurting each other’s growth and on-court impact.
The Thunder have had plenty of time to ruminate over the ill-fated Harden trade and losing Durant was out of their hands. They’re in fine position with Westbrook, a true superstar, committed to their team and some young, promising pieces to help build. Nonetheless, the resounding success of all three players must sting the Thunder, at least slightly, when they think about what they could have built.
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