James Harden didn’t want Kevin McHale as coach, so the Hall of Fame big man was out and the next season player-friendly Mike D’Antoni was in. Harden wanted to play with Dwight Howard, then wanted Howard out and Chris Paul in, then wanted CP3 out and Russell Westbrook in, and that last partnership lasted a season.
James Harden had that kind of power and more within the Rockets organization, including impacting travel and practice schedules, something Tim MacMahon details in a fantastic look under the hood of Houston at ESPN.
If the Rockets had two or three days between games, it was a good bet Harden would call for an off day and charter a private jet to party in Las Vegas or another city. He always gets an excused absence from the first practice after the All-Star break for the same reason…
“If they have multiple days off, everybody knows: James is going to fly somewhere else and party,” a member of last season’s coaching staff said. “But he’s going to come back and have a 50-point triple-double, so they’re OK with it.”
A star player having sway over an organization like this is not uncommon, but franchises have to know where to draw boundaries. Not doing so was an issue with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the Clippers last season. Miami set hard-and-fast boundaries when LeBron James came to the Heat, but LeBron adjusted, won rings, and learned from that experience.
Houston was permissive, to say the least — Rockets’ planes and busses were almost always late because of a lack of discipline on details, something that flowed from what the franchise letting “Harden be Harden” — and now that he has asked for a trade and doesn’t have that same power, there is blowback (such as Harden not showing up on time for training camp, partying in Atlanta and Las Vegas without a mask).
“We knew who the boss of the organization was,” a former Rockets assistant coach said. “That’s just part of what the deal was when you go to Houston. The players, coaches, GM, owner all know.
“I don’t blame James. I blame the organization. It’s not his fault. He did what they allowed him to do.”
Through all of this, Harden won one MVP and was perennially one of the top three players in the league, one of the great scorers in the NBA. Plus, he was as durable a star player as we have seen, never missing more than 10 games in a season with the Rockets. Daryl Morey made a big bet on Harden, and it paid off with the Rockets near the top of the West for half-a-decade, even if they never made the NBA Finals. The Rockets were relevant and must-watch (even if some fans were not enamored with Harden’s isolation-heavy style).
However, part of why they never reached the Finals was that discipline on both ends of the court; players were frustrated with the permissions granted Harden. Chris Paul pushed hard for a more motion-based, egalitarian offense, and soon he was gone. Westbrook chaffed at the organization’s lack of discipline and didn’t want to play with Harden anymore.
Harden wants a trade out of Houston, but the Rockets have dug in their heels and are not trading their superstar for a package that does not blow their doors off — Houston wants a young franchise cornerstone player and a boatload of picks. Houston may have to adjust those desires, Harden is 31 years old and will need to be re-signed to a massive contract in two years, plus there are a lot of hard miles on his body. Teams are hesitant, and (unlike Anthony Davis with the Lakers) there is not one clear suitor willing to go all-in. The destinations where Harden wants to be sent — Brooklyn, Miami, Philadelphia — want to see how things shake out before making a bold move. That may change as the season goes on (and with Giannis Antetokounmpo signing to stay in Milwaukee, the Rockets have more leverage), but the Rockets are not likely to get the haul they hope.
For now, the Rockets and Harden will co-exist in a loveless marriage for the season, waiting for the right chance to end the relationship. One that worked for both sides but was so permissive it never reached the ultimate goals that were set.