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In many ways, the Houston Rockets team meeting in the tense Toyota Center locker room after a second consecutive blowout loss to the Lakers last Tuesday was the perfect encapsulation of the emotional roller coaster that had been the start of their 2020-21 season.
Failure. Frustration. Friction. It was all out in the open — finally.
From a purely basketball-related standpoint, the meeting was inevitable considering their 3-6 start. The team was playing with a lack of energy and intensity on both ends of the floor, the early growing pains of a new system under first-year coach Stephen Silas were glaring, and a roster that now included John Wall in Russell Westbrook’s old spot and seven other new players had been decimated by a combination of minor injuries and COVID-19-related protocol breaches.
But off the court, where James Harden’s trade demand in late October had made their work lives so miserable for those past 10 weeks, the meeting was the strongest sign yet that this team had reached its breaking point with the disgruntled star. They had said all the right things all the way through, from Harden’s “honeybun” hiatus through Atlanta and Las Vegas during training camp to all the drama that had been created from there. Now, enough was enough.
The group was fed up with the antics, tired of the headlines and the constant questions about Harden’s state of mind and where this was all going. And with every day that Harden remained in Houston, his presence became increasingly burdensome for a team that just wanted a sense of clarity and understanding.
Would he buy in or not?
Harden’s effort in his last four games had waned considerably, marking a night-and-day difference from those first three games of the season, in which the former MVP had looked like his special self, even as he worked his way back into shape.
During the meeting, which was led by Silas, and which sealed his decision to keep Harden out of subsequent team activities until a trade was complete, sources say multiple teammates expressed displeasure with Harden’s recent body language and effort. Silas had asked if anyone wanted to share their unfiltered views, and the dialogue about their dysfunction began from there.
John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins both spoke during the meeting, sources said, seeking a direct response on Harden’s level of commitment and preaching about the importance of accountability. For those who had been with the Rockets back when Westbrook preached the same message to anyone who would listen, these uncomfortable dynamics were all too familiar.
Harden, the 31-year-old whose NBA résumé has everything but the ring that so often defines a star’s legacy, made it clear that there was way too much history here for the newcomers to truly understand what was going on. It’s not clear if this was the sort of ‘disrespect’ to which Cousins would later refer in his press conference the following day, but this tension had clearly been building in a variety of ways to this point. And as 25-year-old rookie Jae’Sean Tate would later reveal to reporters, this was the meeting where they “drew the line.”
In many ways, the conflicting priorities in the room had everything to do with the collective mood souring. Wall, finally healthy, was ready to go full throttle again after missing most of the previous two seasons in Washington. Ditto for Cousins, who went from being on the verge of a max contract with Sacramento in early 2017 to working his way back from a torn Achilles, a ripped quad and a torn ACL in these past few seasons with New Orleans, Golden State and the Lakers. And here was Harden, who had grown so accustomed to having his run of the place during general manager Daryl Morey’s tenure, likely wondering why all these new voices in the room suddenly seemed to carry so much weight.
By the time Harden made his way to the media room table for that infamous 90-second Zoom press conference, sources say he was well aware a trade to Brooklyn was likely coming soon — even if so many of the Rockets were not. He had been receiving routine updates on the situation from parties who knew the state of affairs and was even told before the Lakers game that a deal was nearing.
With his Rockets career unofficially over, the long-overdue candor came out in the form of a muddled confession.
“We’re just not good enough,” Harden had said over Zoom. “Um, you know, we just — we don’t, we don’t — obviously chemistry, talent-wise, just everything. And it was clear. Like I said these last few games, they just — um, from the beginning of the game, they were just aggressive. Veteran team, obviously, a championship team, and, um, you know, one of the best teams that we have in this league.
“Um, you know, I love this city. Um. I literally, you know, have done everything that I can. Um. You know. I mean, this situation is, is crazy. It’s something that I don’t think can be fixed. So um, yeah. Thanks.”
Yet after all this time, eight seasons in which he’d evolved from being a super sixth man in Oklahoma City to one of the game’s most elite talents with the Rockets while coming so close to reaching that Finals stage along the way, Harden was in a partnership that had never been more broken than those past weeks. From the Rockets playoff disappointment against the Lakers in the bubble to the final trade negotiations with the Nets that led to the league’s latest Super Team, the following is a detailed account of how and why the Harden era came to an end in Houston.
A Lakers humbling and a mass exodus from Houston
On the night that Harden publicly admitted he had given up on this Houston Rockets life, LeBron James earned the psychological assist. Again.
The loss last Tuesday marked four months to the day since James’ Lakers so rudely bounced the Rockets from the bubble on Sept. 12, beating them in gentleman’s sweep fashion in the second round and chipping away at whatever hope remained in Harden’s mind that Houston was still a title contender. As if it wasn’t bad enough that Harden’s old co-star, Chris Paul, nearly pulled off an upset of Houston with his Thunder in a seven-game first-round series, the Rockets were outclassed by the Lakers in nearly every way. And Harden, quite clearly, wasn’t the only one who was unsure about his future in Houston.
A mass exodus ensued.
• Former Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, who had inspired so much loyalty from Harden during their four seasons together while orchestrating the offense almost entirely around him, decided to depart in dramatic fashion the very next day. D’Antoni was known to be open to returning up until the end, and sources say Morey was even optimistic that he might have persuaded him to return. But as the team flew back from Orlando, the news was leaked that he had decided not to be back.
• Then came Morey, whose partnership with Harden had been the epicenter of their basketball universe since he traded with Oklahoma City for him in 2012. As Morey would later share, he had made up his mind to leave shortly after D’Antoni’s decision. It wasn’t official until approximately a month later (Oct. 15), when he cited a desire to spend more time with family as the primary reason for his choice. Fewer than two weeks later, reports surfaced about his plans to sign on as team president of the Philadelphia 76ers. D’Antoni’s departure, sources say, played a pivotal part in his decision to leave Houston.
Morey’s second-in-command in the Rockets front office, then-team attorney Rafael Stone, was elevated to the general manager position just weeks after he had been side by side with Morey for nearly two months inside the bubble. There was quite a mess to clean up already, and it was about to get worse.
• Weeks later — not long after the Rockets hired Silas away from his Dallas Mavericks lead assistant position to replace D’Antoni and believed they were on their way again — Westbrook made it clear privately that he wanted out and was eventually sent to Washington on Dec. 2 in exchange for Wall. As we’ve detailed before, Westbrook’s frustrations with the Rockets culture and his desire to play a more ball-dominant style again had everything to do with his choice. Westbrook, who was reunited with former Oklahoma City coach and current Wizards coach Scott Brooks, was known to have wanted the Rockets to run with more of a military operation type of approach, like he’d grown accustomed to during his 11 seasons with the Thunder. The calls for increased accountability that would later be part of Harden’s final days, in truth, started here.
“When Daryl and Mike left, I kind of sat back and kind of reevaluated everything,” Harden said in his first Nets media session on Friday. “Those are two guys I was very comfortable with and the decision-making for the organization. Once they left, I had to figure out, is this organization going into a rebuild stage or were they still trying to compete at the highest level? That was my whole thought process.”
Each of those changes on their own might have left Harden uncertain about the Rockets’ future. But the rapid succession of the franchise-changing events, it seems, left Harden concerned about where it was all going. The end of an era was almost complete.
(Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
A blessing and a trade request
As the Rockets front office searched high and low for its next head coach after D’Antoni’s September departure, the centric focus of the committee was to find an innovative, versatile strategist who could elevate a roster. Both Harden and Westbrook are said to have vouched for longtime assistant Silas, who won the job over candidates such as Rockets assistant John Lucas and former Rockets and Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy (now an ESPN analyst). During Silas’ introductory press conference, he acknowledged conversations with Harden and Westbrook and praised the Rockets’ backcourt for their support.
Sources say soon after Silas was hired, Harden approached the organization with a request to be traded. Per our Shams Charania, Harden had Brooklyn and Philadelphia as his top two trade destinations.
Silas, the son of former NBA player and longtime head coach Paul Silas, has spent the past two decades as an assistant for seven teams, and surely must have thought he’d seen it all in his basketball life. But this — his first chance to be a head coach colliding with a superstar saga that was just reaching its peak — was a different challenge altogether.
By all accounts — including Harden’s — the patient and poised Silas shined during what was a tumultuous time. Amid all the chaos, Harden, sources say, told Silas that he was excited for him to get his first opportunity to be a head coach and that he fully supported him. Harden also assured Silas that he would be a professional, and that Silas shouldn’t hesitate to coach him hard along with the rest of the group.
The Westbrook trade
In early November, Charania reported that Westbrook also wanted a trade out of Houston. Westbrook’s desire for a move stemmed from his unhappiness with the team’s culture and a lack of accountability. The 2019-20 season was quite the experience for the former MVP and nine-time All-Star, sandwiching the most efficient basketball of his career in between a year that was a struggle to fully adapt playing next to his childhood friend Harden.
Like Harden, Westbrook had questions, sources say, about Houston’s plans to contend after Morey and D’Antoni left. Westbrook’s trade request unearthed a season characterized by a myriad of internal roster issues.
Westbrook’s market appeared thin at the onset but a solution emerged out of the rubble — John Wall in Washington. Charania reported that Wall wanted away from the Wizards and a swap trade was agreed upon on Dec. 1.
(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
An unauthorized trip and a no-show
In early December, Harden jetted to Atlanta and Las Vegas to celebrate the birthday of a close friend and rapper, Lil Baby. There was an immediate conflict of interest, with the league having required all players to report to their markets for training camp. Right about the time Silas was trying to implement his new offense back in Houston, a video of Harden lavishing Lil Baby with gifts and honeybuns — aka stacks of $100,000 in cash — was going viral.
It was an inauspicious start, to say the least.
When pressed to describe the organization’s reaction to Harden’s getaway, one team official put it mildly by deeming the entire affair “challenging.” But the focus, the person said, was on his well being more than it was concern about what it all meant. And while it would certainly spark the latest round of unflattering headlines for the franchise, it was not considered a turning point of any sort in the situation.
On day one of camp (Dec. 6), a disappointed Silas addressed Harden’s absence, citing NBA protocol, but added that the team was expecting an individual workout in the evening. Wall said he and Harden had spoken since the trade, that Harden wanted Wall to come to Houston, and that he envisioned him being a Rocket. “I have 100 percent (belief) that he wants to be here and be part of this organization, see what happens with this team and see where we can go,” said Wall.
The following day, however, it was clear something had changed. Silas indicated that there was no current timetable for Harden’s return to the team. “It is a setback,” Silas said. “You want your best player to be here and there’s a short window.”
Silas didn’t know why Harden wasn’t with the team but started preparation for the preseason with his new group. Around 80 percent of the practices were defense-centric, and Silas praised P.J. Tucker’s presence.
An awkward start, a return and an open invite for a relationship
Silas told reporters on Dec. 8 that Harden was now in market and had reported to the team facility to continue his COVID-19 testing. A source said Harden had actually returned to Houston on Monday after returning from Las Vegas, and that he had been testing daily for COVID-19 during his getaway. The team was already well into its training camp plans, but “there will be some sort of learning curve” for Harden. Cousins hoped that Harden would come in and fit in.
Houston, we have small talk! On Dec. 9, Silas told reporters that Harden still remained in league protocol and continued to test negative (league protocol required six consecutive negatives for him to practice) but Silas was able to say hello to Harden in the building. Silas admitted to a somewhat rocky start to their relationship but said that there was plenty of time to build trust.
“The NBA isn’t always a bed of roses,” Silas said.
In regards to Harden’s trade request, Charania reported that the Milwaukee Bucks and the Miami Heat had been added to his preferred destinations. This brought his list to four teams, including the Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers.
A preseason opener without the Beard
Houston played its preseason opener on Dec. 11 without Harden in uniform — a 125-104 win over the Chicago Bulls. There was a steady supply of ball movement and an unselfish brand of basketball, with the team generating 25 assists.
The Rockets hoped that Harden watched the game and would come in and add to what was already being developed under Silas. “You could see the energy. It was a good vibe,” Cousins said, speaking about the new culture — an indirect message to the absentee Rocket. Silas believed the team could still play that way when Harden and Tucker returned to play.
Tucker’s unhappiness and a grumpy presser
A day after Houston’s 103-91 preseason loss to Chicago on Dec. 13, Silas said he spoke at length with Harden, who would play the next night against San Antonio.
“We had a good conversation,” Silas said. “He was locked in and asking good questions.”
But the biggest takeaway of the day was Tucker’s awkward press conference — the first visible signs of his disappointment with his contract situation.
When asked if he would like a trade, Tucker responded: ‘I want to be where I’m wanted.’ When asked if Houston wants to keep him, he responded: “Have you asked them? You should ask them? It’s certain ways to show (that you are wanted), and it’s not just contract extensions.”
Sources say Tucker is prepared to play for Houston for the season even without his future tied down, but he is not opposed to a trade should one materialize. It’s understood that an extension offer is on the table at this point, but Tucker has not accepted it. Teams have already made a number of phone calls to Houston about potentially acquiring Tucker.
“We’re always open to anything with anyone,” Stone said on Sunday. “It’s all circumstantially dependent and if it makes sense for them and it makes sense for us, then we would all be open. We do our best not to predetermine outcomes.”
Harden made his preseason debut on Dec. 15, scoring 12 points on 3-of-12 shooting in 21 minutes against the Spurs (a 112-98 win). Neither Harden nor Tucker spoke to the media after the game.
Silas said Harden looked good and praised his ability to make plays on both ends of the floor. He also envisioned the possibilities of a Wall-Harden backcourt. “It can be really good. To have two dynamic ball-handlers on the floor that can do different things — it can be really good.”
The following day, Harden gave his first media availability since the Game 5 playoff loss to the Lakers in the Orlando bubble back in September.
Needless to say, this was quite the afternoon.
It began with immediate questions about Harden’s trade request, to which he spoke about his primary focus being present with the team.
On his perspective over the last few months: “There’s been a lot of changes. This is where we are. Coach has done an unbelievable job of communicating with the guys, putting the structure in and getting things going.”
Then, there was this legendary exchange with ESPN reporter Tim MacMahon concerning his trips to Atlanta and Las Vegas while the team had already reported to Houston for camp:
Harden denied the notion that the trade rumors had been a distraction to the team, saying the locker room is only focused on preparing for the season. “That’s all that matters.”
Perhaps the biggest line of the afternoon came in response to the question of whether Harden had the same amount of trust in Stone as he did in Morey.
“We haven’t had a conversation,” he plainly stated.
The Athletic reported there was an increased push by Philadelphia to acquire Harden, even featuring a close friend of Harden’s in rapper Meek Mill — with Charania adding that Ben Simmons had been made available in some package discussions. Sources added that Simmons’ name had been floated in possible deals in the previous weeks but didn’t get much traction.
Morey, in turn, sent a statement to The Athletic disputing the notion that Simmons might be on the move.
“We are not trading Ben Simmons,” Morey insisted. “He is an important part of our future.”
All around the league, opinions varied on the question of whether Harden’s behavior had hurt his trade market. The Bucks, fresh off their trade with New Orleans for Jrue Holiday, decided early on not to pursue Harden and became the first team on his list of four to unofficially drop out.
Declining play and rising pressure
Three games into the regular season, it was fair to wonder if Harden might have decided to make the best of a bad situation. He was playing up to his lofty individual standards, averaging 37 points, 11 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game while the undermanned Rockets started 1-2. If he was going to play like this, then maybe the Rockets could remain patient while sifting through offers leading into the March 25 trade deadline.
But two of those games had come without Wall, Cousins, Eric Gordon and Mason Jones, all of whom missed a week because of COVID-19 protocol violations. The truer pulse on their program would come in the five games that followed, with Harden’s production falling off in the kind of transparent way that made his exit soon thereafter all but inevitable during the 1-4 stretch: 17.4 points (37.8 percent shooting overall, 25.6 percent from 3-point range), 10 assists, five rebounds, 3.6 turnovers and 35.4 minutes per game.
The disconnect between Harden and his new teammates was there for all to see in the Tuesday loss to the Lakers in which they trailed by as many as 30 points, never more so than on this possession.
Harden’s poor play added pressure to the already-sensitive situation. It was time for Stone to bring this saga to a merciful end.
(Troy Taormina / USA TODAY Sports)
By the time it was all over, sources say the Sixers came to one counterintuitive conclusion: Even with Simmons right there for Houston’s taking, and with Morey’s widely known love affair with Harden a driving force in their pursuit, Philadelphia’s ultimate purpose in the negotiations was to provide the Rockets with the leverage needed to maximize the return with the Nets. The Sixers’ interest was very real, of course, but the Nets just kept upping the ante to the point where Philadelphia could no longer compete.
What’s more, sources say, the Sixers weren’t the only other legitimate suitor playing that kind of part near the end. While Brooklyn and Philadelphia were widely seen as the two finalists, sources say Boston was still involved in the later stages of the negotiations as well.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge discussed his team’s involvement publicly after the deal went down, indicating that the two teams had not had recent talks. Still, sources say the Rockets saw the Celtics as part of their process until the end and that there were multiple configurations of a deal still possible on that front. As The Athletic reported on Dec. 24, Boston and Portland had been late additions to Harden’s list.
Sources say Miami showed interest early in the process, but the Heat had not been in touch with Houston about Harden for approximately a month before the deal went down. Sources say the Rockets received multiple “big” offers from teams that weren’t on Harden’s list as well.
In the end, the urgency of Brooklyn’s sensitive situation combined with Harden’s strong desire to be there would yield the kind of return Houston had been hoping for. (In the end, the Rockets got four first-round picks, four first-round pick swaps and forward Rodions Kurucs from Brooklyn, Victor Oladipo from Indiana and Dante Exum from Cleveland.) And while Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks told reporters that the extended and mysterious Kyrie Irving absence didn’t fuel their Harden desires, the final size of the offer suggested otherwise. And why not?
Not only was Irving suddenly unavailable, but Spencer Dinwiddie was likely out for the season with a torn ACL. This, it’s safe to say, was not the title-contending plan the Nets had in mind — especially considering they’d already waited a year for Irving and Durant to get healthy again. The Nets, sources said, appeared willing to trade anyone but Durant, Irving and Joe Harris (whom they’d signed to a four-year, $75 million deal entering this season). Durant’s history with Harden and interest in making this reunion a reality clearly played a massive part.
“Brooklyn went Full Monty,” one rival executive whose team showed interest in Harden said. “Desperation was in the cards, and there’s nothing better in this league than to have desperation. …(The Rockets) are banking on it blowing up.”
And therein lies the dirty truth about this deal: If the Rockets are going to make out like they hope here, to have all those first-rounders and pick swaps return as much value as possible when the time comes to make those moves, they need Harden and these revamped Nets to fail in spectacular fashion.
(Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Following Harden’s trade to Brooklyn, he and Stone had a conversation. While the team felt as if Harden’s infamous press conference took them by surprise, Harden expressed that there was nothing personal about his decision to leave Houston and that the two of them have a good relationship. Harden was simply unhappy with his current situation and wanted a change.
“There’s no regrets,” Stone said. “ We had a great talk a couple of days ago right when the deal was finalizing and we’re personally on very good terms. He’s personally on very good terms with the organization. He came to the decision he came to and we’ll move forward. He’s a great basketball player and I wish him nothing but the best.”
Harden and Silas also had a conversation after the trade, where Harden thanked Silas for their time together and urged him to move forward with the group.
While the franchise lost a generational type of talent in Harden, there is a great deal of internal optimism about Victor Oladipo, the two-time All-Star who now joins the team heading into his free agency this offseason. Sources say Silas’ view of Oladipo was a key factor in Houston’s decision making process, as he wants to take a serious look at the prospect of the 28-year-old being part of their program for the long term.
“To have Vic is exciting,” Silas said Sunday. “He fits into a lot of things I believe as far as having someone who can be a go-to type guy, someone who can be a downhill player, someone who makes his teammates better, a big-shot taker. But also a quality defensive-minded player. He’s a true two-way guy who can be effective on the offensive end but can also change the game defensively. We’re definitely excited to have him.”
With the slew of draft picks coming Houston’s way, there’s an internal belief that restocking the shelves with assets gives it a ton of flexibility heading into the 2021 NBA Draft, a deep, talented class.
A day after the trade, a shorthanded Rockets team prepared for two road games in San Antonio. The pregame scenes were different without Harden in the mix. An hour before Thursday’s game, Gordon is the first player to emerge from the tunnel and walked over to meet with Lucas and a team trainer near the scorer’s table. Gordon would miss the game due to a leg injury that is day-to-day, but his close relationship with Lucas will be leaned on much more now. Gordon’s 50-point game against the Utah Jazz last season is often referenced within the team, but his offensive production will be an even bigger focal point now.
Christian Wood is the next Rocket to come on the floor, walking over to an empty seat to tie his shoes before heading into this workout with assistant coach DeSagana Diop. Wood began his workout with floaters in the restricted area, before expanding his drill to catching balls outside of the paint and finishing with one dribble. Wood spoke earlier about the chemistry he had already developed with Harden but now will have to continue on that journey with Wall exclusively.
Sources also say the Rockets plan to be very aggressive with the sizable trade exception generated from the Harden trade and want to use it to get an additional quality player. Multiple teams have called about Tucker’s availability in wake of Harden’s departure. As far as an extension in Houston is concerned, sources say Tucker has tabled those discussions for now.
Through all of this, the biggest winner might just be Silas. Yes, the job he signed up for is different from what he looks at today — thinking he was stepping into a Westbrook/Harden backcourt and having to game plan for an Oladipo/Wall partnership on the fly — but Silas has led his group with a sense of assuredness that has only confirmed the Rockets’ reasons for hiring him in the first place.
“I think he’s handled everything with grace, intelligence, and a lot of integrity,” Stone said. “So very happy with him and the guys play hard. We’re starting a little behind with this group, but hopefully we can build something really cool.”
African-American coaches often get boxed into the “player’s coach” mold, but Silas is every bit an expert tactician as he is a people person. Offensively, the team is passing more and running an offense built to highlight everyone’s strengths — both in areas that are known and unknown. Defensively, Silas has brought versatility and the ability to play in multiple schemes — base single coverage, switching, zone and trapping.
The organization has felt good about its decision to hire Silas to be a first-time head coach, and that choice is one rooted in who Silas is, not what he has in front of him to work with. And that confidence, it seems, extends out from there.
The Harden era in Houston was one that featured all facets of NBA life — optimism, success, and bitter defeat when it mattered most. With the saga over, the Rockets can move forward with a new culture and system in place this season, spearheaded by Stone, Silas, Wall and Oladipo. Whether they ultimately complete their plan from there remains to be seen, but there’s a sense of unity from top to bottom now that hasn’t been there for quite some time.
(Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
• How the post-James Harden Rockets won: A culture shift and a promise kept
• ‘It felt unbelievable’: Inside James Harden’s historic debut for the Nets
(Illustration: Wes McCabe / The Athletic)