James Harden's Return Reminds Rockets of Long Rebuild Ahead

James Harden, donning his familiar No. 13, handed the Rockets their 13th straight loss on Wednesday. Who knows when Houston will nab another player of his caliber?

It was reported on Tuesday that the Rockets will retire James Harden’s number at some point in the coming years, a fitting tribute for the second-greatest player in franchise history. Whose jersey will enter the Toyota Center rafters after Harden? That’s currently an open question.

Forget jersey retirements. Who will be the next Rocket to earn an All-NBA honor? Who will lead Houston on its next run to the playoffs? This is the predicament the Rockets now find themselves in after dealing Harden to the Nets for a slew of draft picks in January. Even without a championship, Harden was a walking playoff berth in his first eight years in Houston. He was a true superstar for the greater part of a decade. Finding the next Harden is nearly impossible. Landing a franchise anchor in any sense is no guarantee. A long rebuild awaits the Rockets, with no end in sight for what could be a painful chapter in the organization’s history.

Harden’s exit from Houston less than two months ago followed a relatively familiar playbook. Perhaps there was some extra drama sprinkled in, but ultimately, Harden forced his way out of Houston just as Anthony Davis did in New Orleans and Kyrie Irving did in Cleveland. Yet the reception for Harden on Wednesday wasn’t exactly analogous to recent homecomings. 

There was a smattering of boos heard each time Harden touched the ball in a 132-114 Brooklyn victory, though you could feel a certain wistfulness from Rockets fans during Wednesday’s pregame introduction and a subsequent video tribute early in the first quarter. The crowd in Houston didn’t mirror the feelings of a jilted former partner. There’s an obvious appreciation for Harden’s eight years of brilliance, a period of success that eluded Houston for much of the post-Olajuwon era. Yet it’s hard to shake the fear of what awaits in the 2020s.

James Harden #13 of the Brooklyn Nets is pressured by P.J. Tucker #17 of the Houston Rockets and Victor Oladipo #7 at Toyota Center on March 03, 2021 in Houston, Texas.

James Harden is pressured by P.J. Tucker and Victor Oladipo during Harden's return to Houston as a member of the Brooklyn Nets.

Comments from Harden ahead of his return likely softened his reception on Wednesday night. He stressed his love for Houston, noting the city as his true home even as he now plays a time zone away. A similar sentiment was even uttered in a postgame press conference for the ages the night before Harden was traded.

“I love this city. I literally have done everything that I can,” Harden said after a blowout loss to the Lakers. “This situation is crazy. It's something that I don't think can be fixed.”

Love for a city can only go so far in the NBA, especially in the current championship-or-bust climate. Harden didn’t demand a trade to expand his brand. He was more than open to playing in Philadelphia, and Milwaukee was briefly floated as a viable landing spot. Harden’s calculus was clear when he considered his future after an ugly exit from the NBA bubble. A hampered Russell Westbrook and a dearth of draft picks limited the Rockets’ ceiling. The West has only gotten better in recent seasons. As Harden faced the final years of his prime on the horizon, the need for an improved situation (one with true superstar talent) became increasingly evident. 

The final weeks of the Harden era were ugly. His behavior before the season was undeniably unprofessional. But zoom out, and can you really blame Harden for forcing the issue? His championship window had clearly closed with the Rockets. The franchise was trending in the wrong direction. There was only one option in order to avoid the inevitable asterisk that mars Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller and Karl Malone’s career résumés.

Harden ultimately got what he wanted after a brief awkward period. He is now in Brooklyn with a pair of true superstars, launching an offensive explosion perhaps unseen in league history. The skepticism regarding the Harden trade was curious in January. It’s downright ludicrous now. 

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Those who didn’t watch Harden closely painted him as a ball-monopolizing stat chaser, one who simply liked to hear the sound of his own dribble. Mocking Harden’s usage became a joke du jour among the NBA intelligentsia, though they didn’t realize such a system was necessary to keep Houston afloat. Now paired with elite talent, Harden can be the best version of himself. He’s now leading the league in assists for the second time in three seasons. He’s racking up triple-doubles with ease, including another on Wednesday night. There was a palpable weight that seemed to loom over Harden in the last year-plus of his Houston tenure. He’s rediscovered a certain joy in Brooklyn, an easy task considering the personnel on hand.

That joy is nowhere to be found in Houston at the moment. The Rockets lost their 13th straight game on Wednesday as No. 13 came to town. A stream of injuries—most notably to dynamic forward Christian Wood—and absences have decimated the roster, exacerbating the struggles for first-year head coach Stephen Silas. Houston’s new head coach has shown promise thus far despite the difficult stretch. He held the group together early in the season despite the Harden drama, and the 20-year assistant quickly earned the respect of the veterans on Houston’s roster. Yet even the often-upbeat Silas has appeared a bit downtrodden over the last two weeks. He noted the spirit of the group wasn’t up to par on Feb. 23, a sentiment shared by John Wall ("This s--- is a--. Terrible.") five nights later. Houston’s 13-game losing streak is bound to end at some point in March. But a painful rest of 2020–21 awaits.

Houston Rockets head coach Stephen Silas

Houston Rockets head coach Stephen Silas looks on during a recent game.

Acknowledging the difficult road ahead for Houston isn’t necessarily a criticism of its current regime. Quibble with the decision to pass on a Ben Simmons trade if you wish, but it’s hard not to be intrigued by the flood of draft picks that will arrive from Brooklyn over the next decade. Houston has a uniquely talented forward in Wood. Wall is a steady, if unspectacular, lead playmaker. Victor Oladipo will either be re-signed or flipped for additional draft picks, with the latter currently looking to be the more likely option. General manager Rafael Stone has shown flashes of shrewdness after nearly a decade of tutelage under Daryl Morey. Expect the Rockets to build in a sensible manner in the coming seasons.

Yet even that optimism is partially undercut by the scars of the Harden era. Houston is closer to pick-neutral than truly flush with draft capital, a consequence of trading Chris Paul and two first-round picks (and two additional pick swaps) for Russell Westbrook. The Rockets could very well accelerate their rebuild in the 2021 draft if they land Cade Cunningham or another elite prospect. But unless Houston falls into the top four, their pick will be sent to Oklahoma City. Finding the next face of the franchise is no easy task. The challenge is heightened when you don’t control all of your picks. Houston played fast and loose with its draft capital in recent seasons to maximize their championship chances with Harden on the roster. Now that he’s gone, the rent is coming due.

Perhaps Cunningham or Jalen Green or another talented teenager reinvigorates this franchise sooner than later. Perhaps there’s a blockbuster trade on the horizon similar to the one Houston made in the fall of 2012. Yet betting on those scenarios is akin to betting on a Westbrook elbow jumper. The success rate is shaky. 

Houston was stuck in the pool of non-contenders for the first 12 years of the century. Harden arrived and brought a dormant franchise back into the title conversation. He walked through the Toyota Center tunnel postgame Wednesday and entered the visiting locker room, with his next appearance in Houston coming in late 2021 or early 2022. Perhaps Harden will have a ring when he returns. As for his former team, they’ll likely remain in the depths of a rebuild, with a chance at the Finals nowhere in sight.