Bradley Beal recalls nearly being dealt to Thunder for James Harden in trade that might’ve changed NBA history

If you’re an NBA fan and you’re not listening to the “All The Smoke” podcast with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, you need to adjust your routine. It’s quickly becoming the place for players to get as real as they get on the open airwaves, and recently it was Bradley Beal reminding us of a blockbuster trade that ‘almost’ went down on draft night, 2012. 

Quick context: At the time, everyone knew Anthony Davis was going No. 1 to the New Orleans Pelicans. Beyond that, the Washington Wizards, one of only three teams for which Beal had worked out, were slotted at No. 2, and the Oklahoma City Thunder were coming off a Finals run with what felt like the makings of a future dynasty in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

Harden, who had just won Sixth Man of the Year, was going to be a restricted free agent in 2013, and with the offers he was likely to receive on the open market, the Thunder didn’t think they would be able to afford him. So, rather than lose him for nothing, they started sniffing around for deals. Beal says that’s how he nearly ended up in OKC:

“We’re sitting in the draft room, sure enough, my agent is tapping me. He’s like, ‘It’s possible you might go to OKC.’ I said, ‘Damn, how am I going to go there? I ain’t worked out for OKC.’ I only worked out for three teams: Washington, Cleveland and Charlotte. That’s when Harden was still in OKC. So the deal was to trade James to Washington. … OKC was going to trade up to get me, trade James to Washington for me. I would have been in OKC with K.D. and Russ. … That was a last-minute decision. It was almost done.”

This has been reported before, with Michael Lee, then of the Washington Post, writing in 2012 that Wizards owner Ted Leonsis backed out of the deal because he was “unwilling to commit what would have been a roughly $80 million, five-year contract for [Harden].” Harden, of course, was eventually traded prior to the 2012-13 season to the Houston Rockets, who immediately gave him a five-year, $80 million contract. 

These “what if” scenarios are always fun, and indeed the common fan wouldn’t believe the number of possible deals that were on the table at one point that would, in hindsight, be mind-blowing. This one certainly qualifies. While Beal wouldn’t have been a fully formed star right away for the Thunder, neither was Harden, and Beal was productive right away, averaging over 17 points a game in his second season while shooting over 40 percent from 3. 

That would’ve been bloody perfect as a third perimeter wheel next to Durant and Westbrook. Perhaps more importantly, Beal would have been locked into his rookie-scale salaries. With Washington, he made $4.1 million in Year 1, $4.3 miliion in Year 2 and $4.5 million in Year 3. 

By the start of 2015-16, the Thunder would’ve been in the same position with Beal as they were with Harden in 2012, having to decide whether to pony up for a young, emerging star coming into his first restricted free agency. But the decision would have been different this time around. OKC would’ve had evidence of Harden turning into a superstar (this likely still would’ve happened next to John Wall in Washington), and likely wouldn’t have wanted to make the same mistake twice. The Thunder were also ready to move on from Serge Ibaka, who was effectively chosen over Harden in 2012. 

However it might’ve worked out, as long as Beal would’ve still been in OKC in 2015-16, which he almost certainly would have had this deal gone down, that would’ve put a very interesting spin on the Warriors-Thunder conference finals, which went seven games as it was. Durant and Westbrook both hit cold streaks at inopportune times in that series, and when they did, there wasn’t another scorer to compensate. Add Beal to the scoring mix, and perhaps OKC pulls that series out. 

From there, start the dominoes. Perhaps the Thunder win a championship sometime between 2012 and 2016, and perhaps Durant doesn’t leave. That likely means Westbrook never ends up on Houston, which also never would’ve gotten Harden, who would’ve been paired with John Wall in Washington. 

How does that change the Wizards’ fortunes? There’s no answer to any of these questions, just as there’s no answer to how differently the NBA might look right now had the Warriors traded Klay Thompson to the Timberwolves in 2014 for Kevin Love, which was seriously discussed. We always get excited about trades that happen, for obvious reasons, but in hindsight it’s often the ones that didn’t happen that wind up having the greatest impact on the league.  

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