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The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets have been linked ever since that infamous late October night nine years ago.
The moment James Harden, who inspired businesses in Oklahoma City to adorn 40-foot beards on top on their buildings, was traded from the Thunder to the Rockets, the two teams became instant rivals.
The rivalry got cranked to 11 the following playoffs when Patrick Beverley slammed into Russell Westbrook’s knee in the first round of a postseason in which the Thunder were the #1 seed, ruining arguably OKC’s best chance at a title.
The mutual dislike between fanbases was on full display in every corner and crevice of social media during the MVP race of 2017 when both Westbrook and Harden had historically bonkers statistical seasons. While fighting for their favorite player, Rockets fans naturally besmirched The Brodie and Thunder fans naturally belittled The Beard. In retrospect, it all seems silly, likened to the Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders debates of the 90s or the Michael Jackson and Prince debates of the 80s. We should just appreciate greatness when we witness it. (For the record, give me Emmitt, MJ and Russ.)
While the Rockets inarguably won the Harden trade by a Texas mile, Sam Presti got a little payback in the form of the Westbrook for Chris Paul and two 1st round picks and two pick swaps deal. Thunder fans were heartbroken to see Russ go, but the return for a declining Westbrook on a huge contract helped secure OKC’s future and paid winning dividends in the present. But Rockets fans’ scapegoating of Thunder fans’ beloved Brodie, along with OKC receiving a bit of revenge in winning the trade, rekindled rival flames.
And just like the Harden trade, the stars somehow aligned for the Thunder and Rockets to face off in the first round immediately following a blockbuster OKC/Houston deal. The series came down to the final shot of Game 7 in which one Arizona State shooting guard blocked the potential game-winner from another Sun Devils shooting guard. While Houston advanced, their all-in season was considered a failure and OKC’s .2% playoff odds season was a smashing success.
The next season, both teams officially began their rebuilds and still astoundingly remain connected at the hip. OKC had the rights to Houston’s 1st round pick via a three-team swap, but it was Top 5 protected. Once it became obvious that a team rostering John Wall, Victor Oladipo and Christian Wood was somehow going to be one of the worst in the league, fans of both teams became emotionally invested in the coin flip that would decide the draft fate of both franchises. Either the Rockets would end up with a top 4 pick, or the Thunder would land the #5 pick to go along with their own pick. Once again, the two fanbases were at odds, this time because of odds. The coin landed Rockets side up and Houston was rewarded Jalen Green while OKC’s Cade and Mobley hopes and dreams were dashed.
But the Thunder and Rockets draft drama wasn’t quite over yet. Once again, Sam Presti picked up a Houston area code call and once again, a deal was done. Draft darling Alperen Sengun had somehow fallen all the way to the #16 pick and OKC fans took solace that some overdue draft luck finally smiled upon them. Psyche! Instead of scooping up the teenage Turkish MVP, the Thunder flipped him to, who else, the Rockets for two more 1st round picks. Houston fans, along with the national media, felt the Rockets pulled one over on the Thunder. And they weren’t quite quiet about their supposed fleecing.
(Side note: Houston won the Harden deal, OKC won the Russ-CP3 deal, but I’m firmly in the TBD camp on the Sengun deal. While he’s been a solid rookie for his draft range, there are still questions about Sengun’s ability to defend at the NBA level. And we have no idea what will become of those two future 1st rounders.)
That little walk down the Thunder, Rockets, Presti and Morey memory lane brings us to the 2021-2022 season. Coming into this year, national pundits criticized OKC’s approach to rebuilding while simultaneously fawning and fanboying over Houston’s draft class and young core. The consensus was that Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun were slam dunk stars, Usman Garuba was a draft day steal, Kevin Porter Jr. was a future star stolen from the Cavs and Christian Wood was one of the best bigs and best contracts in the NBA. Meanwhile, Josh Giddey was considered a major reach at #6, OKC dropped the ball on Sengun, Tre Mann was a lukewarm pick, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was a waste of two 2nd round picks, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was hilariously being ranked behind Deandre Ayton and Michael Porter Jr in 2018 re-drafts and Lu Dort was an afterthought.
Fast forward to Wednesday night at the Paycom Center. The Thunder host the Rockets and lead by double digits for most of the game. Dort scores 34 points and is the best player on the court. SGA has one of his worst nights of the season which is hilariously a 15-7-9-4 game. Giddey has a 14-11 double double. JRE puts up an 8-9 line in yet another start. Mann scores 7 quick points in 11 minutes before an injury. Green has one of his best games of his rookie year, scoring 21 points on 6-14 shooting. Sengun scores 0 points in only 5 minutes. Garuba isn’t on the active roster. OKC wins 101-89. Rockets fall to 1-14. Thunder improve to 6-8.
Two teams linked for the past decade. Two teams that will likely be linked for the next decade. Two teams who contended for the past decade and are now rebuilding so they can contend again later this decade. But somehow, these two teams on the same path but with very different records have very different narratives.
All of this leads me to one question that I just cannot shake from my mind.
Can someone explain to me why the 6-8 Thunder are considered a tanking black-eye and the 1-14 Rockets, who are refusing to play John Wall this season, are applauded for their rebuilding efforts?.