Harden joins Rockets, expected to play Tuesday as he waits for trade landscape to change


James Harden stepped on the court — in Rockets gear, with his Rockets’ teammates — for the first time this season on Monday. He practiced with his team, having cleared the league’s coronavirus protocols and had six consecutive negative tests. He is expected to play Tuesday night in the Rockets preseason game against the Spurs.

Harden may want to get used to this because — as much as he wants a trade — he likely will be wearing this gear and playing with these teammates most of the season. And maybe after the trade deadline, too.

Harden still wants a trade out of Houston, but his clumsy approach to forcing it left the Rockets with leverage and the ability to be patient — Harden has two fully guaranteed years on his contract, there is no pressure. The fact Harden has shown up in Houston, is practicing, and says he will be “professional and engaged” means he’s not willing to go full scorched earth — Jimmy Butler in Minnesota — to get his way.

Harden’s request is continually compared to Anthony Davis forcing his way out of New Orleans, but there are some key differences. First, Davis had a year-and-a-half left on his contract when the talk went public and got serious, and that timeline put some pressure on the Pelicans. With two full years remaining for Harden (plus a $47 million option year), Houston can wait out the market a little.

More importantly, there was a clear suitor for Davis in the Lakers — they wanted him, he wanted to go to Los Angeles. The question ultimately was the price. Harden — at age 31, with a lot of miles on the tires and being up for a massive contract extension in two years — does not have another team desperate to trade for him. Not yet, anyway.

Let’s look at the four teams where Harden reportedly wants to be traded:

• Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn’s offer of Caris LeVert/Spencer Dinwiddie/Jarrett Allen and some picks does not meet the “we want to still compete” unrealistic expectations of owner Tilman Fertitta and the Rockets. Houston reportedly wants Kyrie Irving in a trade; Brooklyn is not playing along. The sides are not even on the same page, a source told NBC Sports.

• Philadelphia 76ers. A lot of fans seemed to think “Daryl Morey wants Harden” and would throw Ben Simmons in a trade to get the deal done yesterday. Not true. For one thing, the Rockets reportedly want Simmons plus three first-round picks, which more than the 76ers will pay. Plus, Philly revamped its roster and added shooting (Seth Curry, Danny Green) to go around Simmons and Joel Embiid to try and make that work. Ownership there is invested in seeing their home-grown duo succeed. According to multiple reports, the 76ers are not changing course and have not come close to putting Simmons in a trade offer.

• Miami Heat. The Rockets are not getting Jimmy Butler or the just-re-signed Bam Adebayo, but a deal built around Tyler Herro and other young players, some picks, and Kelly Olynyk (for salary) reportedly might be available. That doesn’t seem to move the needle in Houston. Miami will talk, but so long as they think they have a shot at a sign-and-trade for Giannis Antetokounmpo next offseason, the Heat may be hesitant.

• Milwaukee Bucks. There is no deal to be made here. Milwaukee is a surprisingly old team that does not have the young players Houston wants back, plus the Bucks are hard-capped, making any trade difficult to pull off.

Harden and the Rockets need the trade landscape to change.

Maybe Antetokounmpo signs his supermax extension and Miami starts to look at its other options (Bradley Beal would be on that list, too, should Washington make him available). Maybe things don’t mesh well between Simmons and Embiid in Philadelphia, or Durant and Irving in Brooklyn, and that team decides it needs to make a radical change. Maybe a team nobody is considering pops up and decides to bid on Harden (Houston is under no obligation to trade Harden where he wants to go, if another team wants to take on that risk and has the best offer, the Rockets should jump at it).

What the Harden trade request has in common with the Davis trade may be timing: A lot of noise at the trade deadline but the deal gets done the following offseason. Meaning Harden is stuck in a loveless marriage for this season.

Right now, the only team that wants Harden is Houston — John Wall is trying to win him over. Wall looked sharp in a couple of preseason games (it’s preseason, take with plenty of salt) and said multiple times his goal is to win Harden over.

“I feel like the way I play, at times when James is tired… I could be a guy to take pressure off of him,” Wall said after the Rockets’ second preseason game Sunday. “And that opens the lane even more for me when I get to run pick-and-rolls because, with a guy like that, that can score on all levels, they might not want to help on the weakside. Now, I got a guy, maybe Eric Gordon, Ben McLemore, Danuel House or DeMarcus Cousins, or Christian Wood that gets open shots.

“The first two games of the preseason, we’ve been getting a lot of open shots. That’s with us moving the ball or me getting downhill. Just imagine, add another guy, James Harden, we all know what he’s capable of.”

Wall can make his pitch starting today at practice, and likely for the foreseeable future as there is no trade demand for Harden right now.

It also very likely will not be enough — Harden wants out and will get traded. Where and when are the questions that will follow the Rockets like a dark cloud all season.

Joel Embiid scores 46 but 76ers still fall short against Poole, Warriors


SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Jordan Poole emerged as one of Golden State’s most dependable performers during the championship run last season.

He resembled that go-to guy once again Friday night when the Warriors needed everything he had, with the ever-reliable Draymond Green doing his thing, too.

“Opportunity,” Poole said of his stellar fourth quarter playing all 12 minutes.

Poole scored 33 points and swished a key 3-pointer with 1:18 to play off a pretty pass by Green, Stephen Curry added 29 points and eight rebounds, and the Golden State Warriors rallied past Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers 120-112 on Friday night.

“Tonight something about it felt like last year in that playoff run when Jordan was just attacking and knocking down shots but also getting to the line just giving us an entirely different dimension offensively,” coach Steve Kerr said. “That’s when he’s at his best. I thought he really competed down the stretch defensively as well. He was magnificent tonight.”

Embiid checked back into the game with 8:26 left and scored 13 straight on the way to 46 points.

But the Warriors came back from 11 down for their ninth straight home win — and one of the most important yet as they fight for playoff positioning.

Green noted: “Nobody wants to be in that play-in, the play-in is dangerous.”

Curry dribbled the baseline and around Embiid for a go-ahead jumper with 2:20 to play. Klay Thompson tied it at 104 with 5:05 left, only for Embiid to drive straight down the key for a dunk. He did miss consecutive shots in crunch time, too.

Poole’s driving dunk with 8:27 left got Golden State back to 93-91 then Kevon Looney’s putback after Embiid blocked a layup try by Poole cut it to 102-101.

Embiid shot 13 for 23, made 19 of 22 free throws and had nine rebounds, eight assists and two steals. He helped Philadelphia take an 88-79 lead going into the fourth. He had his streak of scoring 30 or more points in a franchise-record 10 straight games snapped in Wednesday’s 116-91 win at Chicago but made up for it.

Golden State nemesis James Harden sat out with left Achilles soreness for the Sixers, who had won nine of 10 and 10 of 12.

Thompson added 21 points and six rebounds and Looney contributed six points, 10 rebounds and seven assists as the Warriors reached 30 home wins for the sixth time since 2014-15 and second in a row.

“You want to take care of home court as best as you can,” Poole said.

Green had 10 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds for Golden State, which had some momentum from two straight wins on the road following an 11-game skid away from Chase Center.

“I feel good. It’s that time of year you’ve got to turn everything up a notch,” Green said. “I love this time of year.”

Philadelphia, which had won the last two matchups, made 10 of 17 shots to start the game but missed its first eight 3-point tries before Georges Niang connected at the 8:06 mark of the second quarter.

Luka Dončić fined for money gesture toward referee after loss


The Mavericks were livid about the officiating in their loss to the Warriors, particularly the miscommunication about a third-quarter out-of-bounds play that gave Golden State an uncontested bucket in what ended up being a two-point game.

Frustrated or not, everyone knew Luka Dončić crossed a line and would get fined when he made a gesture suggesting the referees were paid off.

Friday the NBA came down with a $35,000 fine for Dončić “for directing an inappropriate and unprofessional gesture toward a game official.” While that’s a steep price it could have been much worse — the referee did not give Dončić a technical foul at the time, which would have been his 16th and triggered a one-game suspension without pay.

Dončić wasn’t the only person fined by the league for snapping at the officials, Suns coach Monty Williams was fined $20,000 on Friday “for public criticism of the officiating.” Williams was frustrated after losing to the Lakers on a night where Los Angeles got to the line 46 times to Phoenix’s 20.

“Where do you see a game with 46 free throws for one team?” Williams said after the game. “That’s just not right. I don’t care how you slice it. It is happening to us too much. Other teams are reaching, other teams are hitting, and we’re not getting the same call, and I’m tired of it. It’s old… I’m over it. Been talking about the same thing for a while. Doesn’t matter what team it is.”

It doesn’t matter what team it is for a reason. First, the Suns do not draw a lot of fouls because they are not a team that puts a lot of pressure on the rim (especially without Kevin Durant), they settle for jump shots. Second, they have the highest foul rate in the league — they foul a lot. Those two things will lead to a free throw disparity nightly (they had players who could draw fouls, Mikal Bridges is doing it now in Brooklyn, but the Suns didn’t put the ball in his and ask him to attack as the Nets have, Phoenix used him as a shooter and cutter off the ball more often).

The tensions between players and referees feel ratcheted up this season, and these are just the latest examples.

Report: Kevin Durant targeting March 29 return vs. Timberwolves


When Kevin Durant sprained his ankle during warmups, the Suns said he would be re-evaluated in three weeks. It turns out it may be more than a re-evaluation.

Durant is targeting a return almost three weeks to the day from when he injured himself, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

There has been no official update from the Suns, but Durant’s camp has always been optimistic about a return.

The Suns have gone 2-5 without Durant and slid into a virtual tie with the Clippers for the No. 4 seed in the West. If Durant returns Wednesday, Phoenix would have seven games left to hold off Los Angeles and retain home court in the first round of the playoffs. More importantly, they could generate some chemistry before the postseason begins.

Durant averaged 26.7 points and 7.3 assists a game with a ridiculous 80.8 true shooting percentage in his three games with the Suns, and the team won all three games. The fit seemed almost seamless and if the Suns can get back to that they are a threat to win the wide-open West.

It’s going to be a wild final couple of weeks in the West.

Where’s the beef? Anthony Davis says ‘Me and Bron have one of the best relationships’ in NBA


Whispers and reports of a split in the Lakers’ locker room and a beef between Anthony Davis and LeBron James gained momentum after Davis’ reaction to LeBron James breaking the all-time scoring record went viral. Talking Lakers drama is always an excellent way to get clicks/eyeballs/listeners and so once a rumor like a beef between the team’s two biggest stars begins rolling down the hill it does not stop.

Even if Davis says there is nothing to it, everything is good between him and LeBron. Here’s the quote he gave to Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“Me and Bron have one of the best relationships I think in the NBA as far as duos or teammates, regardless,” Davis said. “But they don’t see that. They don’t see the stuff we do off the court and time we hang out with each other. They see on-court stuff.”

The reality is it doesn’t matter if LeBron and Davis are buddies, hanging out together drinking a lovely Pinot Noir and laughing behind Frank Vogel’s back. What matters is whether they can get along and thrive on the court. There’s a banner hanging in Crypto.com Arena that says they can if they stay healthy and management puts the right kinds of role players around them.

The healthy part is in the way right now, with LeBron out for at least a couple more weeks with a tendon foot injury (whether he returns before the season ends is up in the air). The Lakers are 7-5 in the dozen games he has missed with this injury thanks to a defense — anchored by Davis — that is third-best in the NBA over that stretch. That has kept their head above water, but the Lakers are in a tight race where six teams — from the 7-12 seeds, making up all the play-in teams and a couple that will miss out — are tied in the loss column at 37. The Lakers need more wins, including Friday night in a critical game against the Thunder.

The Lakers will need LeBron back — and LeBron and Davis to rekindle their on-court chemistry — if they are going to make any kind of a playoff run. First they just have to get to the postseason, which will fall more on Davis. Of late, he has looked up to the task.