After the Rockets lost to the Warriors in the second round of the 2019 playoffs, James Harden said, “I know what we need to do. I know exactly what we need to do. We’ll figure it out this summer.”
That summer, Houston traded Chris Paul and significant draft capital to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said he pushed his reluctant basketball-operations staff to make the deal.
Also pushing for the trade: Harden – apparently with the force of a potential trade request.
After the 2019 playoff collapse and fallout with Chris Paul, sources say Harden told the front office the same thing: commit to building a championship team or trade me.
Westbrook’s arrival came off the backs of Harden’s belief that Paul wasn’t a suitable partner to lead the Rockets to a title, sources say.
Harden obviously got his way. Houston traded Paul for Westbrook.
Except Westbrook fit even worse with Harden.
That was predictable. The issue was also exacerbated by Harden refusing to embrace playing off the ball or – his load lightened – defending.
But already enabled once, Harden was more direct this offseason, reportedly requesting a trade to join Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the Nets.
Harden approached management/ownership and gave them his mandate: Either build a championship team around him or get him to a situation where he could achieve that.
Prior to Houston’s flurry of offseason moves, Harden had told Houston that he didn’t see a realistic path to a title and would prefer to join Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, sources say.
Apparently, Harden doesn’t believe Christian Wood, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins are the answers. Harden remains away from the team.
The Rockets’ biggest problem in building a championship team around Harden: They’re short on assets after surrendering so many for Westbrook, whose big contract carries negative value. Trading Westbrook to the Wizards, Houston had to take back Wall’s even-worse contract and got only a protected first-round pick.
And apparently the Rockets’ roster situation was so dire only after Harden pushed for it with the threat of a trade request!
Harden is a great player. He’s a perennial MVP candidate who singlehandedly lifts his team’s floor to the playoffs. His offensive production ranks with the all-time greats.
But when it comes to winning at the highest levels, he has failed in multiple ways. He has numerous postseason duds individually. He has been central to a problematic culture that has the team coming undone amid pressure. And he has used his clout to harm Houston’s roster management.
I don’t blame Harden for wanting to win in his prime. At 31, he has only so much time left. Though locked into his contract two more seasons, he’s within his rights to request a trade. (Not reporting comes with other consequences.)
But he also ought to consider his own culpability in this mess. If he doesn’t, these problems could follow him to Brooklyn or wherever he lands.
Unfortunately for the Rockets, this is mostly their problem now. As they know from last year, NBA superstars usually get accommodated.