The James Harden Saga in Houston Could Get Ugly

A James Harden trade is inevitable at this point, though it’s how the Rockets approach it that matters.
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Just when you thought things couldn’t get more awkward between the Rockets and James Harden … Harden finally spoke. And it didn’t go particularly well.

On Wednesday, a day after making his preseason debut, a 12-point, four-assist effort that was overshadowed by his getting roasted on social media for a screen grab that made him appear overweight, Harden addressed reporters for the first time since ending a brief Houston holdout.

He was asked about his widely reported request to be traded.

“Right now I’m just focused on being here,” Harden said.

Reporters asked about the message he was trying to send by skipping out on the start of Rockets camp to spend time in Atlanta in Las Vegas.

“I was just training,” Harden said.

For?

“The start of the NBA season.”

How, ESPN’s Tim McMahon pressed, are you better off training in Atlanta and Vegas than with the team in Houston?

“Just [with] my personal trainers.”

And what about Rafael Stone, the Rockets’ first-year GM? After years of playing for Daryl Morey, does Harden believe Stone can assemble a winner?

Said Harden, “We haven’t had a conversation.”

Understanding Harden’s motives for requesting a trade isn’t complicated. It isn’t about the change in coaching staff or the shakeup in the front office. It isn’t about trading Russell Westbrook or any concerns about his new backcourt partner, John Wall. It’s that the Rockets can’t win, and Harden knows it. So he wants to go someplace he can.

Just look at the teams reportedly on Harden’s wish list. He’s not looking to get traded to Sacramento. He wants to go to Miami, the defending Eastern Conference champs. He’s not pushing for a deal to Chicago. He’s angling to be reunited with Morey in Philadelphia, where a Joel Embiid partnership awaits.

Harden isn’t stupid. Even if John Wall regains his All-Star form, even if DeMarcus Cousins bounces back from two injury-riddled seasons, even if Christian Wood is the kind of frontcourt scorer he showed flashes of in Detroit, the Rockets are probably nothing better than a middle-of-the-pack playoff team, a cut behind the Lakers, Clippers and Nuggets, battling it out with Utah, Dallas, Portland and Phoenix for playoff positioning. In a particularly brutal conference, Houston is more likely to miss the playoffs than to achieve a deep playoff run.

It’s a situation that Harden, at 31, wants nothing to do with.

Harden bears responsibility for the Rockets’ plight, of course. An ESPN report this week detailed specifics of something long known in NBA circles: Houston has catered to Harden. Harden can’t get along with Chris Paul? Paul’s gone. Harden wants Russell Westbrook? The Rockets will grossly overpay for him, attaching a pair of first-round picks—along with two years of swap rights—to extract Westbrook from Oklahoma City. The Westbrook partnership fizzles after one season? He’s out, with Wall brought in to replace him.

Will Houston cater to Harden again? A trade is inevitable at this point, though it’s how the Rockets approach it that matters. Harden has little leverage here. He has two guaranteed years remaining on his contract and would have to walk away from $47 million in 2022 for it not to be three. He can make things uncomfortable, and he already has, drifting into training camp late, requiring a week’s worth of negative COVID-19 tests before he could rejoin the team at practice. He has usurped the authority of Stephen Silas, Houston’s rookie head coach, while putting teammates in the impossible position of having to speak for him.

"I don't try to ask him about [the trade talk] because that's his personal business,” Wall said. “All I worry about is what we can do to make this Rockets team the best that we can be while everybody is here and move forward with that.”

Still—Houston has to tune it out. All of it. A Harden trade isn’t a big moment for the franchise. It’s an enormous one. What the Rockets get back for Harden will shape the future of the franchise. And the best offers could be months away. The Nets could put together a nice package headlined by Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie. But Giannis Antetokounmpo’s decision to sign a long-term deal with Milwaukee could put the Heat—and Tyler Herro—in play. And if Philadelphia struggles to start the season, Morey, now running the Sixers’ front office, could put Ben Simmons on the table.

The next few months could be ugly. Harden admits he is behind. “I’m in catch-up mode,” Harden said. And while Wall and Cousins have looked sharp, asking two players two years removed from any meaningful game action to hit the ground running is asking a lot. The Rockets could struggle to start the season.

“There’s [been] a lot of changes,” Harden said. “Obviously the entire coaching staff, some of the front office, a lot of the players. This is where we are. Coach [Silas] has done an unbelievable job of communicating with the guys and putting the structure in and getting things going. … I can only focus on right now. For me, the best James Harden is making sure I am in shape.”

Indeed. The Rockets know the Harden Era is over. How it ends is the only thing uncertain. If Harden works himself back into shape and plays like the three-time scoring champion, teams will beat down Houston’s doors to acquire him. If he struggles and is a regular distraction, his value will crater. And for what it’s worth, Harden says becoming a distraction is what he intends to avoid.

“Since I’ve been here nothing has been said about it,” said Harden. “Everybody in the locker room, the coaching staff has been focused on preparing for the season. That’s all that matters.”