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Can the Rockets Remain Competitive After James Harden’s Trade Request?

James Harden returned to the court for the Rockets last night, but his future in Houston remains unclear.

HOUSTON — After an offseason that included a coaching change, general manager departure, All-Star swap and superstar trade demand, there’s a certain unease that surrounds the Rockets entering 2020–21. But even considering the circumstances—both organizationally and, well, globally—things briefly returned to normal at the Toyota Center on Tuesday night. James Harden dropped 12 points and added four assists in 21 minutes, commanding the defensive attention befitting a three-time scoring champion. Following weeks of curiosity, a simple truth has emerged. As long as Harden is a Rocket, Houston should fit comfortably inside the top eight of the Western Conference.

Parsing Harden’s exact feelings toward his current organization is a difficult task. Actions speak louder than words, and with Harden, the axiom is especially true. His reported request to be dealt was followed by a delayed arrival to training camp, and even after joining the team, there’s been no explanation of Harden’s long-term plans. He’s yet to speak to the media after two practices and a preseason game, and it’s unclear whether the vow of silence will be broken anytime soon. The guessing game is likely to continue until Harden is actually dealt.

The Rockets now find themselves in a bit of a detenté with Harden as we approach the regular-season opener, and, while not perfect, the current situation could be manageable for Houston. Harden is ready to roll for the regular season by all accounts. Another holdout isn’t on the horizon, and the franchise anchor is too great of a competitor to sulk through a stream of contests. The Rockets are wise to slow-play the Harden trade talks on a pair of fronts. For one, they owe it to themselves to wring every asset possible out of a potential deal. But there’s an added element that’s underdiscussed. Whether it be until the trade deadline or through the entirety of 2020–21, the Rockets will be effective with Harden on the floor. The 11-year veteran is a walking playoff berth. Even in a crowded West, his brilliance should be enough to continue the NBA’s longest-active playoff streak.

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Harden’s trade request has reportedly stemmed from his desire to win a championship, something he doesn’t believe he can do in Houston. Considering the juggernauts in Los Angeles, Harden has a fair point. But the current projections surrounding the Rockets seem a touch panicked.

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This isn’t a roster devoid of talent. John Wall appears healthy with plenty of burst after a multiyear layoff, and the rotation at Stephen Silas’s disposal remains intriguing. Christian Wood should be a perfect offensive complement to Harden at the five, while Danuel House (best known for his bubble trouble) should take another leap as a secondary scorer and playmaker. Eric Gordon appears healthier at the moment than he did at any point in 2019–20. DeMarcus Cousins remains a sieve defensively, though his presence should help ensure plenty of space for Harden to operate in five-out lineups. This isn’t a perfect roster, though it is an entertaining one. The firepower of a playoff team is evident.

“To have two dynamic ballhandlers on the floor who can do a bunch of things for each other, it can be very very good,” Silas said Tuesday. “[Wall] had the ball for a lot of the first two games, and James came more on-ball tonight. We’re going to get them comfortable and move forward.”

The Rockets appear to be taking a prudent path with Harden as the season approaches. It’s not necessarily as though Silas & Co. are ignoring the trade noise, but there seems to be a healthy separation between the discussions in the front office and on the floor. There’s a certain respect and professionalism at play between Houston’s head coach and its superstar. Harden will give his full effort, and Silas will place him in the best place to succeed. It’s unfortunate that Silas’s first games with Houston have been marred by the Harden drama. But the NBA lifer seems unfazed. If Silas receives full buy-in from his superstar, he could have greater early success than many envision.

We shouldn’t paint an inaccurate picture of the situation in Houston. Harden’s trade request is unwilling to be rescinded regardless of Houston’s regular-season performance, and seeing him in a Rockets uniform after 2020–21 would be downright shocking. Yet reports of the Rockets’ demise are currently exaggerated. Houston is prepared to log at least half a season with Harden, and, based on what we’ve seen thus far, the franchise should remain competitive. Neither Silas nor the team writ large have lost sight of that goal.

“If everyone stays healthy, we’re going to be very tough,” Wall said Tuesday night. “When you have a guy like James Harden and a guy like me, the sky's the limit.”

We can reassess Houston’s long-term outlook at a later date, when Harden is swapped for Ben Simmons or a war chest of assets. For now, the Rockets appear primed for another run as a playoff stalwart. Just how long they’ll hold that mantle remains in question. But the conditions are currently ripe for patience. With Harden at the helm, a high floor remains.