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February 23, 2013

BLOG: The "what-if" of James Harden

— Houston Rockets guard James Harden, formerly of the Oklahoma City Thunder, scored 46 points against his old team Wednesday night.

Before the season, Oklahoma City made the decision to trade Harden rather than sign him to a large contract. After last year's collective bargaining agreement, salary cap and luxury tax restrictions have gotten more severe, and the Thunder already has Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook signed to long-term deals.

The deal made sense financially, and doesn't appear to have significantly affected the Thunder, which is the No. 2 team in the Western Conference more than halfway through the year.

But, while watching Harden score his career high in points against the Thunder, I couldn't help but wonder if Oklahoma City Thunder history will always include a series of what-if questions.

What if the Thunder had given Harden a bigger role while he was in OKC, instead of keeping him on the bench as the sixth man?

What if the Thunder had decided to give Harden a max contract, instead of paying Westbrook or Serge Ibaka?

What if the Thunder had just taken the salary cap hit and paid Harden what he asked for, for the sake of winning a championship?

It's still far too early to write the Thunder off as a what-if story. Durant and Westbrook are both very young, and will be the nucleus of a contending team for years to come. Oklahoma City will most likely be a top contender for a championship for at least the next three or four years.

But, if after five or six years, the Thunder has not won a championship, we will always have to ask "what if?" when talking about the early years of the Oklahoma City Thunder. And every time James Harden scored 30 or 40 this season and in the years to come, I know I'll be asking myself that question as well.

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