It’s no secret Seattle basketball fans have been keeping tabs on the OKC Thunder from afar. It was painful to see the trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook contend for a championship in 2012, and it was equally painful to see each develop into MVP candidates. But as each star fell from the OKC sky, the eyes of Seattle fans gleamed a bit brighter. Harden was traded to Houston for two first-round draft picks (one bringing in Steven Adams in 2013), one year of Kevin Martin shooting from the hip, Jeremy Lamb and a glimpse into what could have been with Mitch McGary. Then the revenge pie got sweeter when KD shocked the basketball world by joining Golden State in 2016. After Paul George spurned them for the smoggy beaches of LA last offseason, they had no choice but to ship Westbrook and his ungodly supermax to Houston to reunite with old pal James Harden.
You’d be hard-pressed to bake a better revenge pie than that. But what if…hear me out here…what if the Sonics never left?
I know, I know, we’ve all had that thought. But could the big three of Durant, Harden and Westbrook have fared any better in Seattle?
Let’s just pretend everything worked out. Key Arena made the necessary updates, neither Howard Schultz nor Clay Bennett owned the team, they stayed in Seattle and everything was just peaches. Would the basketball side of things have played out any differently? No one knows, but it’s always fun to pretend.
Here’s how I have it going down.
1. What if Howard Schultz sold the SuperSonics to Steve Ballmer?
What if the former ownership group headed by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz legitimately wanted to keep the team in Seattle? I’m saying imagine if that was their number one line in the sand. The deal with the Professional Basketball Club LLC would have been nixed. Clay Bennet would never have lied to Sonics fans and the club wouldn’t have left for the smaller market of Oklahoma City. The best way to circumvent these realities would have been for Schultz to sell to another local businessman. Hmm, who’s another wealthy, Seattle businessman who wanted an NBA team around that time? Oh right, Steve Ballmer. Ballmer, who now owns the LA Clippers, was a late arrival to the efforts to keep the Sonics in Seattle after it became apparent they were skating town. Then in 2013 he almost swooped in and brought the Sacramento Kings to the Pacific Northwest. Alas, these attempts were unsuccessful and we’re left wondering what could have been. For the purpose of this exercise, we actually have gotten a glimpse of what could have been under Ballmer’s command, as the Clippers have gone from laughing stock to title contender with the additions of both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George this past offseason. He’s a super fan with a super wallet—a great fit for any franchise.
2. What if James Harden re-signed?
The Thunder traded The Beard after their 2012 Finals loss to the Heat. This move shocked a lot of people, especially because of the pedestrian return they got back from Houston. So it was strictly a financial move, right? Some people said the Thunder had too much depth and didn’t need to spend that sort of money on Harden. Well, with a larger market (Seattle) and an owner with deeper pockets and passion, it’s not farfetched to imagine the Sonics keeping Harden. Without Harden, the Thunder lost in the Western Conference Semis in 2013, as well as the WCF in 2014. I don’t think they would have beaten the 2013 Spurs that went on to take down the Heatles in the NBA Finals. But they could have gotten past the Grizzlies in the Semis and went on to battle the Spurs in the WCF. That experience could have prepped them for the following year where they met the Spurs again in the WCF, which they could have won to move back into the NBA Finals.
3. What if the Sonics don’t miss the playoffs in 2015?
This is predicated on the previous ‘what if.’ The team formerly known as the Sonics missed the playoffs in 2015 due to a slew of injuries to key guys. Durant suffered from a foot injury that eventually cost him his season. This led to Westbrook’s final transformation to Westbrick, and a gang of commentary wondering who was more valuable between the two and if they could even function on the same court. If James Harden is still around, none of that matters. In fact, Harden averaged over 27 ppg in 2015 and began his mainstay as a perennial MVP candidate. Obviously he wouldn’t have put up quite the same numbers with KD and Westbrook by his side, but just imagine the storyline that season could have had. KD goes down and Harden steps up to lead the Sonics into the playoffs, possibly even to a deep run. Now, do they get past Golden State? Probably not. But that playoff run cements Durant, Harden and Westbrook as possibly the best big three in the league and begins the mass gatherings of veteran-minimum-ring-chasers in Seattle the following offseason.
4. What if the Sonics fired Scott Brooks and brought back Nate McMillan?
In real time the Thunder fired Scott Brooks one year before Nate McMillan rose from Associate Head Coach in Indiana, to Head Coach. What if the Sonics vultured Mr. Sonic away from the Pacers to take the team to the next level? One of the prevailing reasons given for letting Brooks go was his refusal to change tactically on the offensive side, and his inability to reign Russell Westbrook in. This seems like the perfect timing in an alternate universe to bring back McMillan and ascend to the next level of the Western Conference as KD, The Beard and Westbrook all reach the beginnings of their primes.
5. What if Durant never left for Golden State?
It is a hot topic as to exactly why Durant left OKC. Was it the city? Was it his teammates? Was it simply he didn’t think he could win there? Well, I can’t speak to any issues he may have had with teammates, but if Harden stays and they make it to the Finals in 2014, it would be difficult to argue he couldn’t win there. Another reason he might have stayed had the team been in Seattle is his well-known affinity for the Emerald City. Durant can often be seen wearing Mariners caps and retro Sonics gear. He repeatedly mentions his love for the city, its fans, and his desire to see a team brought back to the city he first played professionally in. With an owner in Ballmer, passionate and all-in, a team constructed around three of the best players in the NBA, and a rapidly growing market and fan base around him, it would be insanely difficult to see Durant leaving for Golden State. If he stayed we could have seen a rivalry grow between the Warriors and Sonics as they presumably would have faced off in back to back WCF. Sounds like a good deal for the league.
6. What if the Sonics traded Westbrook somewhere besides Houston?
I would have traded one of the wonders of the world to see how the trio of Harden, Westbrook and Durant would have developed together. Even after I’ve predicted so much success, it’s not hard to imagine it all still going haywire. So let’s say by the 2019 offseason the Sonics are looking to trade Westbrook and balance the court a little more. Where would they look? This could end up looking like the Harden trade that actually happened. Less of a financial play but it would free up the backcourt and allow for more depth and emphasis to be placed on frontcourt players as well as defensively. Maybe the Pelicans make a play for Westbrook as a last-dash effort to keep Anthony Davis in town. They could try sending a goody bag of picks and expiring contracts over in exchange. A more plausible move might be to Detroit. The Pistons were shopping Andre Drummond on and off again; maybe the pairing of Westbrook with Blake Griffin would have forced their hand. Throw in Luke Kennard and a couple picks and the Sonics aren’t looking so bad from this.
7. What if I didn’t have to make this list?
The most important ‘what if’ is right here. What if over 40 years of history and tradition didn’t have to go looked upon as if it were a dream? What if Gen Z’ers could understand this article? What if the city of Seattle had hung another championship banner? In truth the championships aren’t what we miss. While Seattle would have greatly appreciated the ups and downs that came with barely missing the Finals one year to missing the playoffs the next, in reality all the fans want is for the name to be alive, for the Sonics not to fade away into nothing but stories and old videos. Memories are great, but the opportunity to make new ones is what keeps the spirit of the Sonics alive. What if Seattle could show the country what it’s been missing out on? What if the Sonics never left?