James Harden probably would not mind being compared to Babe Ruth. As an avid video game player, he has likely played Madden. I’m not too sure he would welcome a comparison with a billy goat, but since the subject is curses and jinxes, if he knew the humorous history of the Curse of the Billy Goat, he’d probably be OK with the reference.
When I first heard the surprising news in October 2012 that the Oklahoma City Thunder had traded a 23-year-old guard who was good enough to have played for the U.S. Olympic team during the summer, it was only natural to think the decision could haunt them. They were so close to winning a championship and had done such a good job of accumulating talent that it seemed premature to break up the foundation.
But you had to wonder: Would Red Auerbach have traded Harden? How about Jerry West?
There was nothing Pat Riley would not do in 2010 to bring LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade in Miami. Think he would have traded Harden before exhausting every possibility of winning a title?
And as for Harden’s dislike of the sixth man role – couldn’t OKC coach Scott Brooks have figured a way to start Harden, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and worked out a complementary rotation?
Those were the questions then, and they continue to apply. It would be silly to suggest the Thunder’s current injury problems, which worsened last week when Russell Westbrook (broken hand) joined Kevin Durant (foot injury) on the injured list, are a result of a curse.
But all curses are silly – whether involving a famous trade (Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees) or a video game cover subject (Madden).
And does anyone really believe that a tavern owner, Billy Sianis, who was asked to leave a Cubs World Series game in 1945 against Detroit because he had brought a billy goat to Wrigley Field and its smell was bothering other fans, placed a curse on the Cubs that has lasted almost 70 years?
Compared to that, the Curse of James Harden is pretty tame.
Realistically, however, the Thunder’s problem is that, well, there’s nothing harder than replacing a talent like Harden. At full strength, they are still special. But so are the Spurs and Clippers.
In the past two seasons, the Thunder have split playoff series with the Grizzlies, so how much better are they than Memphis? The Mavericks have their best team since the 2011 championship year. The Warriors and Blazers are young, formidable contenders.
The fear Thunder executives should be feeling is that with all the amazing talent they had collected, are they now headed for the same fate as talented, ringless teams in the past?
Are they going to be like the Malone/Stockton Jazz, the Iverson 76ers, Reggie’s Pacers or Ewing’s Knicks – teams that had great players and got close but never won a title?
When there are injuries, the team affected always looks for the proverbial silver lining. With Durant and Westbrook out another month or so, there will be less wear and tear on their bodies.
Minutes will increase for role players and they will be more experienced when the stars return. Maybe a new talent will emerge. In their first game since Westbrook’s injury, the Thunder got 23 points each from Serge Ibaka and Perry Jones in a 102-91 victory over the Nuggets Saturday night. Jones averaged 3.5 points last season. So far, even though it is after only three games, he is averaging 19.5.
There is also a different sort of historical precedent of teams who encountered failure but learned and benefited from it – the Pistons’ “Bad Boy” teams lost in the playoffs twice to the Celtics and once to the Lakers before winning titles in 1989 and ’90.
Michael Jordan’s Bulls lost playoff series three consecutive years to the hated Pistons before winning six of the next eight championships beginning in 1990-91.
The Lakers with Shaq and Kobe were embarrassed in 4-0 sweeps two consecutive years before winning the first of three straight titles in 2000-01.
The Thunder have known their share of disappointment, now they have a good dose of adversity. So perhaps they will emerge from it in championship form.
But until they actually win a title, the cloud of James Harden will be hovering over them, even though his presence in Houston has not resulted in the Rockets being a championship threat. No doubt they are better than they were without him, but after a failed off-season, no one is taking the Rockets seriously as a title contender, even with Dwight Howard in his second season with the team.
Team executives have long said that the best trades are the ones that benefit both teams.
So far, in terms of winning a championship, the James Harden trade from OKC to Houston has helped neither.
CHECK OUT JAN HUBBARD’S ARCHIVE FROM SHERIDAN HOOPS.COM. TERRIFIC STUFF ON THE NBA, PAST AND PRESENT.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.