THE HOUSTON MISSILE The culture in the James Harden era, which links two owners and now four head coaches, can best be summed up in the three words of a former employee:
“Whatever James wants.”
Unless they were at the front end of a back-to-back set, the Rockets were essentially safe to stay overnight or even an extra day after playing in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and other street-cities that rank among the others remained Harden’s favorite stops.
If the Rockets had two or three days between games, it was a good bet that Harden would call a day off and charter a private jet to party in Las Vegas or some other city. For the same reason, he always gets an excused absence from the first training session after the All-Star break.
“Only James is James,” say those currently in the franchise. These circumstances, however, differ dramatically from those at any earlier point in the eight-year tenure of the multi-year All-Star in Houston.
Harden has pushed the Rockets to improve every off-season. He said he would want to be traded if they couldn’t keep up. And he had the final say on things beyond travel and exercise plans. He could be in charge when it comes to staff movements, both on the squad and the coaching staff, a power he wielded to fuel the layoffs of head coach Kevin McHale and the departures of co-stars Dwight Howard and Chris Paul Sources with.
And the Rockets thought it was good business doing what Harden wanted to make a historically elite player happy. But when Harden tried to get the Rockets to trade in the past few weeks despite the lack of an offer they considered fair value, it was not the annual ultimatum for improvement. It was something more.
By letting the rockets spin in the wind while camp opened with little communication, Harden’s absence was the focus of rookie head coach Stephen Silas’ early days of training. And by dumping the NBA’s COVID-19 logs while partying maskless during the pandemic and boasting about it on Instagram, Harden revealed what could come if he didn’t get his way.
“Yes, he will act,” said a former Rockets employee.
“He’s never heard ‘no’.”
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MULTIPLE ROCKETS OFFICIALS acknowledge that the entire organization was “complicit” in the culture that has been created over the past eight years.
“We knew who was in charge of the organization,” said a former Rockets assistant. “That’s just part of what the deal was when you went to Houston. The players, coaches, GM, owners all know it.
“I don’t blame James. I blame the organization. It’s not his fault. He did what they allowed him to.”
However, there is no consensus between current and former missile officials and staff that empowering Harden to reach such extremes was the wrong approach. Before Harden’s arrival in Houston, the Rockets tended towards NBA irrelevance and missed the playoffs of the last three seasons.
Former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey took a calculated risk when he predicted the reigning Sixth Man of the Year would become a real superstar when he met Kevin Martin, then rookie lottery player Jeremy Lamb and a package of NBA Draft picks to Oklahoma City sent thunder for Harden. The Rockets haven’t missed the playoffs since then, the only franchise that can make that claim.
“When they have several days off, everyone knows: James will be flying and partying elsewhere. But he’ll be back and have a 50-point triple-double, so they’re fine with that.”
Member of Houston’s coaching staff 2019-20
Houston missed his final goal during his run with Harden and made it to the Western Conference finals twice, but never past that point. But the brilliance of Harden, the 2017-18 MVP and a top 3 finisher on the four other polls in the past six years, gave Houston the realistic hope of claiming only a handful of teams play per season.
He’s also one of the sport’s most enduring stars. He routinely ranks among the league leaders within minutes and often plays with injuries like sprained ankle and shoulder bruises that would calm other players. All of these things made it easy for the Rockets to look the other way when it came to Harden’s tough lifestyle.
“When they have several days off, everyone knows: James is going to fly somewhere else and party,” a coaching staff said last season. “But he’s going to come back and have a 50-point triple-double so they’re fine with that.”
But the lack of discipline and attention to detail was wrong with Paul and Russell Westbrook, which ultimately led to breakups between Harden and these two stars.
The climax of the Harden era of the franchise came during Paul’s first season in Houston, when the Rockets scored their top 65 regular season wins and built a 3-2 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference final. But the Rockets lost the last two games in the series when Paul paused – “an Achilles tendon gone” is a phrase that will haunt Houston fans forever – and the chemistry between the ball-dominant co-stars got in the following season blown up.
According to sources, one of Paul’s biggest problems was that Harden had chosen, in principle, not to participate in the Rockets offensive if the ball was not in his hands. Sometimes he barely stepped halfway across the field while watching as Paul had the ball. Harden quickly got tired of Paul barking about his concerns, which included lobbying trainer Mike D’Antoni to incorporate more structure and movement into an offensive system that revolved around Harden’s isolations.
Missile Management believed these issues could be fixed and wanted to bring them back with the Harden-Paul duo last season. These plans changed as soon as Westbrook became available.
Harden insisted that the Rockets go through the deal, saying he would call for a deal if they couldn’t find a way to get his childhood friend and former OKC teammate to Houston. The Rockets paid a price that was considered steep at the time – Paul, 2024 and 2026 first-round picks and swap rights in 2021 and 2025.
Sources said Westbrook had expressed displeasure many times during the season that he was unable to “play my game” as he put it. There were questions about the Harden-Westbrook fit as they pushed to play together again, including D’Antoni, who privately voiced his concerns, sources said.
Those concerns were allayed internally and externally as Westbrook thrived after the missile’s switch to a small ball opened the ground. He averaged 32.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game while shooting 53.1% off the ground over a two-month period before the coronavirus pandemic halted the season.
HOUSTON’S CASUAL CULTURE appalled Westbrook. In Oklahoma City, despite the fact that it had the same superstar privileges as Harden in Houston, the Thunder operated with the discipline of a military unit under Westbrook’s watch. The missiles were a stark contrast, especially last season under D’Antoni, who was never known as a disciplinaryist and was a lame duck in the final year of his contract after two messy extension negotiations over the summer.
Westbrook did not tolerate being late. At the Rockets, scheduled departure times were treated as mere suggestions by Harden and others.
“Nothing ever starts on time,” said a former Rockets employee. “The plane is always late. The bus is never on time. … It’s just an organized AAU team.”
Once in the Florida Bubble, Harden waited for his daily COVID-19 tests until just before the Rockets’ film session began. When he wasn’t on time, Westbrook barked, “Start the movie! Start without him!” D’Antoni explained that if Harden got there, they just had to start over, which didn’t do much to calm Westbrook down.
Whether Westbrook or Harden wanted out first is not clear, but they stopped playing together a season after the Rockets mortgaged their draft for the future to make it possible.
Morey, the man who negotiated this deal with the approval of owner Tilman Fertitta, stepped out before either star called for the deal. Rafael Stone, who was promoted to general manager after Morey’s resignation and became president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers, had to grapple with the chaotic aftermath.
As a senior Rockets source told ESPN in November, the franchise was “ready to feel uncomfortable” by starting the season with angry Superstars on the roster. The Rockets dealt with Westbrook just before the camp opened and sent him to the Washington Wizards to get John Wall (fresh from a two-year injury hiatus) and a protected future first-round election a disastrous decision.
But Houston has dug itself in on Harden and at this point is refusing to consider an offer unless it includes a young franchise cornerstone and a bundle of first-round tips and / or promising rookie players -Deals. According to sources, Harden, who was solely focused on forcing his way to the Brooklyn Nets, has advised the Rockets that he would agree to a deal with the 76ers or other select competitors.
After the Rockets announced they would not be affected by the calamity, Harden delayed his arrival at camp and instead opted to hang out with rapper Lil Baby. He gave his friend a Prada bag filled with honey buns, a $ 100,000 stone of cash (aka a “honey bun”), and a Richard Mille watch that is six-digit for Lil Baby’s birthday – while Silas gets stuck .
Harden signed up with the Rockets on December 8, a week after his teammates, tested negative for the coronavirus for six consecutive days of the NBA, and finally practiced with the team on Monday. He had a “good conversation” with Silas about basketball strategy, according to the coach, who had had minimal communication with his point guard up to this point.
On Wednesday, Harden spoke to the media for the first time since arriving late at training camp, but didn’t directly answer questions about his desire to be acted upon.
The Rockets hope that Harden, who played 21 minutes in Tuesday’s preseason win over the San Antonio Spurs, will be professional as he patiently explores the trading market and seeks a deal that doesn’t turn the franchise into a long, painful rebuild sentenced.
“You can’t get mad at your child if you let them eat candy every night and then suddenly stop one night and they have a tantrum,” said a former Houston assistant coach. “You’re the one who makes them eat candy every night.
“The Rockets turned the organization over to James, and now they have to live with the fallout.”