Revisiting the 2012 Thunder and their KD-Westbrook-Harden trio

Published September 9, 2022, 10:00 AMPolo Bustamante

The championship window of the Durant-Westbrook-Harden Thunder was wide open. And then in an instant, it was slammed shut.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden have dominated NBA headlines in the past few months. 

Durant sent shockwaves through the league when he asked the Brooklyn Nets for a trade back in July. While he has committed to run it back for the upcoming season, things are still shaky between him and the team. 

Harden got himself traded (again) out of Brooklyn to the Philadelphia 76ers. While the trade was a success, his first stint with his new team wasn’t. Harden flamed out of the playoffs (again). 

Westbrook’s current situation is a mix of the two. He’s currently being shopped by the LA Lakers because of how disastrous the 2021-22 season was with him on board.

Way before all the drama of the past season and this offseason, these three were together on one team. Back in 2012, the Oklahoma City Thunder were exciting and full of potential. They were a growing threat out in the West.

The state of the NBA

The 2011-2012 season was all about the Miami Heat’s revenge tour. After failing to win a championship in their first year together, the super team led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh were out for blood.

King James took home the MVP award that season, while Wade and Bosh played at an All-Star level. Even though there were a couple of teams who finished with a better record than Miami, the question of that season was who could stop the hungry Heat?

Most people also forget that the ’11-’12 season was delayed by more than two months because of a lockout. That resulted in a 66-game season that was more of a grind than usual. Because of the condensed schedule, teams with younger, fresher legs were able to shine brighter than usual.

Players entering their prime like Derrick Rose, Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard, and Chris Paul all made the All-Star team that season. More importantly, they led their respective teams to the playoffs. The Thunder, a team led by young, homegrown talent, was no exemption to that trend. They continued their rise that season.

The lineup

The average age of the core of that Thunder team was 23 years old. And that’s if you round up.

Leading the way for Oklahoma City was Durant. Even if he was only 23 years old at the time, it was clear that Durant was a transcendent superstar. He had already built a reputation as one of the most unstoppable scorers in the league. Durant bagged a third straight scoring title, averaging 28 points per game that season. Even more amazing was his scoring efficiency. Durant was hitting nearly 50 percent of his shots and knocking down two triples per game, both of which were career-high numbers at that point in his career.

Backing Durant up was his expressive and equally explosive point guard. Westbrook was a borderline All-Star that season, averaging 23.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game. While not as efficient as Durant, Westbrook always brought the bang. He was a highlight machine that hammered home dunks like he was always offended by the rim.

The third piece of the puzzle was a puzzle himself. Before the rise of positionless basketball, Harden was an enigma that opposing teams couldn’t solve. Was he a scorer? A shooter? A playmaker? Apparently, he was everything, averaging 16.8 points, 1.8 3-pointers made, and 3.7 assists. Harden could play alongside Westbrook and Durant as an off-ball weapon. His true value came when he was leading the bench mob as their main scorer and creator. That led to Harden winning the 2012 Sixth Man of the Year award.

The rest of the team was filled out by role players who were all on the same timetable as their three stars. Serge Ibaka was a defensive beast that could finish lobs and hit the midrange jumper. Kendrick Perkins was a tough pick-setter and rough interior presence on defense. Thabo Sefolosha was a lockdown defender, while Daequan Cook and Eric Maynor filled up the backup roles ably. 

Taking a look at their roster now, the Thunder looked like a perfectly formed NBA 2K MyGM team. They had it all: superstars, role players, glue guys, and locker room leaders.

The aftermath

The Thunder brought the boom in the ‘11-’12 season. With Durant, Westbrook, and Harden all playing major roles for the team, they finished second in the Western Conference, winning 47 of the 66 games that season. 

The team’s youth paid off in the playoffs as they outlasted more established teams in their bracket. In the first round, they swept the defending champions Dallas Mavericks led by Dirk Nowitzki. Moving on to the second round, they eliminated Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, avenging their playoff loss back in 2010. They made the Conference Finals finals for the first time in franchise history and were up against the top team in the league, the San Antonio Spurs.

After losing the first two games in San Antonio, the Thunder showed experience beyond their years, winning two tight contests in Games 4 and 5, before closing out the series on their home floor in Game 6.

Riding on the momentum of their huge win over the Spurs, the Thunder won their first-ever NBA Finals game on their home floor, facing off against the vaunted Heat. That was their final win of the season. Miami eventually won the next four games to win the championship.

One of the lasting images of Game 5 was Harden with his arms around Westbrook and Durant, watching the Heat celebrate their championship in the final moments of the game. 

If you were watching that scene unfold back in 2012, you could have sworn that the Thunder were just getting started. The Thunder’s Big 3 watching the Heat’s Big 3 celebrate a championship should have been enough motivation for all three of them to run it back and try to win a championship together.

Unfortunately, the decision to stay together wasn’t up to them. This wasn’t NBA 2K. Problems like cap space and leverage exist in the real world.

With Harden’s impending free agency and the Thunder refusing to go over the cap, they made the tough decision to trade away their sixth man, rather than lose him for nothing after the following season. That was effectively the death knell for the Thunder.

Harden blossomed into a superstar with the Houston Rockets while Oklahoma City couldn’t find a player who was just as talented as him. The burden became too heavy for Durant and Westbrook to carry by themselves. The Thunder were never able to get back to the heights they reached in 2012. Durant left the team in 2016 and Westbrook was traded away to team up once again with Harden in 2019. Oklahoma City has been in a perpetual rebuild since then.

It’s a shame that the Thunder Big 3 never got to reach their full potential. They were a dynasty in the making, a team that was poised to take over the league. 

Oklahoma City is currently trying to bring together a talented core just like they had in 2012 through the war chest of draft picks that they’ve amassed. That’s proven to be a difficult task so far. That’s because bringing together a team with three MVP-level players is like catching lightning—or in this case, thunder—in a bottle.