James Harden has made the Houston Rockets one of the NBA’s most successful franchises over the last eight seasons. The Rockets, in turn, have built their entire system around Harden’s unique skillset.
That worked pretty well for both parties for a long time. Harden has won three straight scoring titles and an MVP award, and his 36.1 points per game in 2019 was the seventh best in history, with only Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan managing better single season scoring performances.
The Rockets had missed the playoffs three straight seasons prior to Harden’s arrival and made them all eight seasons he’s been a Rocket. They had a 65-win season in that stretch and made the Western Conference Finals twice, including having a 3-1 lead on Golden State in 2018 before the Warriors came back and won the series.
Here’s the downside to a model built specifically around Harden, though. The Rockets have burned through complementary stars. The pairing of Harden and Dwight Howard didn’t work, and Howard was shipped out. The pairing of Harden and Chris Paul didn’t work, and Paul was traded away. This year, Russell Westbrook lasted just one season as the Rockets’ second option before Harden reportedly wanted someone else. Add in some organizational chaos that led to the coach who built an offensive system around Harden, Mike D’Antoni, resigning at the end of the season, and the general manager who built the team, Darryl Morey, moving on as well, and suddenly the Rockets didn’t resemble the franchise that helped Harden blossom into one of the league’s biggest stars.
The team, under governor Tillman Fertitta, has been notoriously budget-constrained and hasn’t gone into the luxury tax to build a competent supporting cast, instead opting for low-cost veterans or even reclamation projects to cobble together a rotation. After Morey and D’Antoni left, Harden made it known in November that he wanted to be traded to Brooklyn to create a new super team with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
But the Rockets have proven reluctant to part with their franchise player, instead opting to add some star power around him to entice him to give new coach Stephen Silas a chance. The Rockets flipped Westbrook for John Wall, a star point guard but one with a troublesome recent injury history and massive contract. They signed former All-Star DeMarcus Cousins, but he has his own problematic injury history. They signed young forward Christian Wood, who is unproven but was impressive after moving into Detroit’s starting lineup after Andre Drummond was traded last season. Health concerns aside, Houston’s starting lineup at least looks more balanced than it has been in any recent season.
Was it enough to change Harden’s mind? Judging by his absence at the start of training camp, that answer is a pretty clear ‘no’ despite the fact that he has two years left on his contract with Houston.
Harden is still quarantining to follow the league’s COVID-19 protocols, and missed the team’s first practices this week, after being photographed in Las Vegas the weekend before training camp started. The New York Post also reported that an issue for Harden is Silas himself. The Post report says that Harden was consulted about the Rockets’ coaching hire, but Silas wasn’t among the candidates he supported, but Houston went ahead with hiring him anyway.
Still, short of just simply not showing up and surely drawing fines and massive criticism, Harden doesn’t really have an option other than to report. The Houston Chronicle reports that he’s begun working out on his own and will join the team as soon as he satisfies the league’s quarantine requirements.
But what happens when he gets there? Unhappy superstars are rarely prevented from getting their way, the most recent example being Anthony Davis eventually forcing his way to the Los Angeles Lakers while under contract with the New Orleans Pelicans. At some point, what are the odds the Rockets trade him? Here are NBA odds for other destinations:
Of that list, the Nets were clearly Harden’s preferred destination, but the Rockets don’t seem keen on sending him there, with reports indicating they’d only do it for a deal that brings back either Durant or Irving. The 76ers also seem like an obvious choice, with Morey taking over in the Philadelphia front office and having nothing but the highest praise for Harden on his way out of Houston. But Houston may be unwilling to deal with their former GM, and even if they were, would likely want one of Philadelphia’s stars in return, Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid.
The intriguing team on that list is the Raptors. Toronto has already made one massive, franchise-altering move for a superstar, trading beloved cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard in 2019, which led to the franchise’s first NBA championship, even if Leonard left that offseason. Harden is even less of a gamble because he’s signed to a longer contract that Leonard was. The have enough assets to put together an intriguing offer for Harden, although Houston would likely ask for Pascal Siakam as the centerpiece of any trade and it would be surprising if Toronto would be willing to part with him.
Harden’s situation is somewhat different than Davis’ with New Orleans because he’s reportedly open to many more teams than Davis was. Davis made it clear he only wanted to play for the Lakers, while Harden has expanded his list to at least four teams – Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Miami.
The Rockets still have most of the leverage here, but if Harden is clearly unmotivated or the team under-performs early, expect Houston to see what sort of return they can get for one of the league’s biggest stars and best scorers.