With one minute and twenty-nine seconds left in Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals, the cameras made their way towards the Oklahoma City Thunder bench. James Harden had each of his arms wrapped around Russel Westbrook and Kevin Durant, as they watched their championship hopes tick away.
This moment would be forever known as the last time we saw those three together in their Thunder uniforms.
Everyone assumed they would be the team of the future with those three guys. But James Harden's bad play in the Finals ultimately cost him his spot on the Thunder. They traded him to the Houston Rockets, and has gone on to become the best offensive player in the game.
Leaving Westbrook and Durant searching for their next Finals appearance together, which would never come. Durant moved on to the Warriors. The Thunder tried to reinvent themselves with Paul George. But that never really worked as they never made it out of the first round.
This slow regression into mediocrity all started with the Harden trade. But they now have an opportunity at redemption.
The failure to win a single playoff series led to Paul George searching for more. In the age of player empowerment, he was able to force his way out and to the team he wanted. The Los Angeles Clippers paid a large price for PG13.
The Thunder acquired Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and first-round draft picks from 2021-2014, and another one in 2026.
This power move from George left Westbrook asking himself what the next step in his career was going to be. He and the Thunder agreed to find a way to help each other find success, separately.
He was traded to the Houston Rockets and finally got his reunion with his buddy James Harden. But the Rockets had to pay a hefty fee.
The Thunder continued their summer haul by acquiring Chris Paul, four more first-round picks, and additional cash.
So with all this movement the only question remaining is What's the next move?
The consensus opinion was that the Thunder were building for the future. When you take a look at this roster, you realize that they are one trade away from being a serious playoff team. But they are also one trade away from leaning into tanking for the future.
Chris Paul in his 15th season is as efficient as ever. He is playing less minutes and shooting the ball less than ever in his career. Yet he is still averaging 17 points per game, while shooting 46% from the field and 43% from the three-point line.
He is simply refusing to fall out of relevance. He is still a Top 40-50 guy in the league, and he could possibly be one of the three best point guards in the Eastern Conference.
With Paul playing just as efficient as ever, he has become a player we may see sought after at the trade deadline. Even though his contract will exceed $40 million starting next season, it may be worth it for a team who is looking to maximize his potential over the next couple of seasons.
He could raise the ceiling of the Milwaukee Bucks while they have Giannis. He could make the Miami Heat a contender to reach the Finals in the East. Or he could make the Los Angeles Lakers nearly unbeatable.
Or maybe they want to keep Chris Paul. They have an unlimited amount of trade assets that they could use to get what they need to build around him.
They already have their big man in Steven Adams, and a solid backup in Nerlens Noel. But they would need a high volume scorer to make this work.
The Blazers have been struggling early on this season. We could possibly see a trade for CJ McCollum that would compliment CP3 extremely well.
The Warriors are in the market for bench players and future assets. Maybe a trade for D'Angelo Russel could give them the shot creator and closer they need.
Or maybe they'd be willing to wait this season out, and make a play for Bradley Beal in the offseason.
It's possible that the next move is to not make a move at all. They make like this team that they have currently constructed.
In their last three games, we've seen them beat the Philadelphia 76ers, and take the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers to the wire in close losses.
This is not a bad roster, it's actually pretty good. So the decision to build with their 15 draft picks that they have over the next 6 seasons isn't a bad idea either. With the flattened odds in the NBA Draft Lottery, they could try to win with this squad, while still having a legitimate chance at top picks.
And making a continuing effort to be a winning team is always a good pitch to free agents. Being able to show that the product on the floor isn't a facade just to move higher in the draft. But a culture dedicated to always putting the best effort on the floor. Just look at the Miami Heat and how it worked for them in getting Jimmy Butler.
There's really an unlimited amount of possibilities with this Thunder organization.
Flash back to that moment again of their Big 3 watching their championship hopes drift away. It was the end of an era that never really started. Mostly because they never let it get to its full potential.
So the Thunder now have a chance at redeeming themselves, and making the most of their past failures. They can build from the ground up, build around what they have, or maintain a steady course.
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