When I think of “what ifs,” I don’t think so much about the aftermath of a missed shot or lost game had the outcome changed. I think more about a time in history where the Washington Wizards made a decision that represented a fork in the road. Those are the fascinating and excruciating ones to me — the decisions they controlled that ultimately led them down the path they are on.
The Wizards’ front office faced this fork in the road moment back in 2012 when the Oklahoma City Thunder decided they had to move on from James Harden just months after playing in the NBA Finals and seeing Harden named Sixth Man of the Year.
According to Michael Lee who was with The Washington Post at the time, the Wizards turned down a trade offer for Harden, in part because Ted Leonsis didn’t want to commit to a five year, $80 million contract to him.
The Wizards would have sent Bradley Beal, whom they just drafted third overall in the 2012 draft, along with Chris Singleton, their second first round selection in the 2011 draft, to the Thunder, who were trying to manage around the luxury tax. A Wizards source, according to Lee denied the trade was offered as proposed and suggested that the Thunder were also looking for an established player in return.
Considering Harden was eventually traded to the Houston Rockets for what was, even at the time, an underwhelming return (Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and two first round picks), let’s assume the multiple sources Lee had were correct and there was a framework for a Harden for Beal trade that the Wizards ultimately rejected.
But what if the Wizards said yes? Harden flashed All-Star type of potential but his upside was still an unknown because he came off the bench. The Rockets, to their fortune, quickly found out he could handle a larger scoring load and the Wizards would have also.
The 2012-13 NBA season started with some bad news. John Wall missed the first 33 games of that season as he recovered from a knee injury. The team, after acquiring Nene the season before and Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor that summer from the Pelicans, had hoped to push for a playoff appearance but their 5-28 start sans Wall quickly ended any such talk.
Washington doesn’t start 5-28 with Harden. Harden played in 32 of his first 33 games for the Rockets, averaging 25 points per game and helped Houston get to a 19-14 start to the season. This wasn’t a talented Rockets team either. Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, and Omer Asik rounded out their top four scorers.
Harden was ready-to-go. There was no rookie learning curve for him and what he did in OKC was just the tip of the iceberg. He was a pre-packaged ready to go All-Star. Harden started with a bang, scoring 37 and 45 points in his first two games, both on the road and both wins.
We’ve seen the Harden story play out in Houston and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t have played out similarly in Washington.
He’s a dynamic offensive player who is skilled at shot-making and getting to the free throw line. Then-head coach Randy Wittman wouldn’t have emphasized the three ball as much as it was in Houston, but Harden only averaged 6.2 attempts per game his first season in the Rockets. But, Wittman would have given Harden the green light to unleash his offensive talents.
“The Beard” would have happened, but in Washington, D.C., and a team that needed to find their niche to differentiate themselves from their “Rock the Red” co-tenants would have found it. Harden would have quickly cemented his stature in the organization and energized the fan base.
The interesting thing would be how this would have impacted Wall. He had an uneven sophomore season and was injured going into year three. His breakout came in the second half of the season after he’d played his way into shape — and after it was effectively over because the team’s record was already so bad.
Would that opportunity have been there if The Beard had become the face of the franchise during Wall’s absence? If he didn’t have his breakout then, would the Wizards have waited to offer Wall an extension to see if the fit with Harden worked? For all of Wall’s talents, he’s a player who’s at his best with the ball in his hands but so is Harden.
Or perhaps it would have worked and Wall would have focused on terrorizing teams defensively, getting out in transition, and being the facilitator to Harden’s scorer — in essence, being the Omega to Harden’s Alpha. Wall could have focused on parts of his game that suffered a bit as he and Beal struggled to fill the Alpha role.
In the end, talent is talent and Harden would have lifted the Wizards to consistent relevance and they would have become LeBron James’ one true adversary in the East. He would have started off with a decent supporting cast of Wall, Ariza, and Nene. My guess is that the supporting cast — similar to what has occurred in Houston would have evolved with players cycling in and out over time.
Harden would become the player with a supermax type deal and the Wizards hopes of breaking a Conference Finals ceiling would have rested with Ernie Grunfeld. Not ideal, but elite talent can overcome a lot in the NBA.
The Wizards didn’t blunder in deciding to keep Beal. He’s become a two-time All-Star and the second leading scorer in the league this season. And the Wizards, led by the Wall-Beal tandem have won three playoff series in their four postseason appearances.
Harden is a five-time All-NBA first team player and former MVP. He’s the superstar the Wizards have been chasing for seasons. They’ve had players capable of stardom, but impatience (Chris Webber) or bad luck (Gilbert Arenas) robbed them of reaching that level.
Unlike Webber and Arenas, Harden has been a durable top five player for the long-haul, something this organization has needed. And frankly, he’s the type of player the Wizards haven’t had for nearly half a century. Harden would be their identity, their go-to player, and someone who puts fans in the seats.
Washington would have been a big factor as long as Harden was wearing a Wizards uniform.