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There’s no incentive for the Rockets to cave to James Harden

Vincent Goodwill
·6-min read

James Harden has apparently made his intentions known to the Houston Rockets, turning down an unprecedented contract, requesting a trade and becoming the latest superstar to publicly leverage unhappiness with his franchise.

It doesn’t mean, though, the Rockets have to cave into Harden’s demands after saying “No thanks” to $50 million a year and ship him to Brooklyn to play with Kevin Durant.

Harden communicated this to Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, sources tell Yahoo Sports, but you’d find just as many who believe the Rockets won’t trade Harden as you will who say the Rockets should trade him.

Predictably, Russell Westbrook asked off the S.S. Minnow before Harden, and even though it can look the same, the reasons certainly differ. Although it can appear Westbrook plays with a style that lacks structure and discipline, he’s certainly looking for it off the court and in the locker room — which seems to counter playing on Harden’s team.

The world the Rockets have created is one Harden has had the heaviest hand in cultivating and now, without Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni to cater to his wants in ways no other superstar save from LeBron James is afforded, he wants out.

And usually, with few exceptions, the player wins.

The Dwight Howard experiment not working? He gets sent away.

Chris Paul’s personality grating on you a little too much? Bye-bye.

But these decisions are as much a reflection on Harden as the franchise itself, which makes things a little different than the average great player whose time in a place has expired.

Harden’s basketball excellence created the control he exerted over the Rockets and perhaps that same singular excellence will enable him to escape from a trap door to Brooklyn or Philadelphia as he so desires.

He gets his money and his destination, with the franchise left to pick up the pieces of shattered dreams and unfulfilled expectations.

It’s a cold world as the tables have turned in the direction of player empowerment, with teams no longer able to operate with impunity and accountability for decisions coming due in real-time in relation to a superstar.

But with the time remaining on Harden’s contract (two years and a player option totaling $132 million), the Rockets don’t have to do anything just because Harden has essentially gone public.

James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets shoots the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the first quarter in Game Six of the Western Conference First Round during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena.
James Harden reportedly wants out of Houston. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

There’s no incentive for the Rockets to cave to Harden, even though the franchise has seemingly done so since he arrived in 2012 — giving him no reason to believe they won’t bow down to this play, either.

The Nets offering a package headlined by Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie is nothing to sneeze at, but if this is just about basketball the Rockets have plenty of time to ferret other offers — four quarters don’t always equal a dollar.

Trading an MVP is usually a losing proposition but the Rockets can mitigate the damage by coming away with a bonafide All-Star, if not a franchise player. Would the Boston Celtics put Jaylen Brown on the table? Or would the apparent secondary destination, the Philadelphia 76ers, offer Ben Simmons?

The wayward nature of today’s NBA players makes it a little easier to consider such a move. Two years is now a lifetime to have a star, and windows can close as quickly as they can open if you’re in fear of having two years of Harden before inevitably joining Durant in Brooklyn — if he’s still in Brooklyn given the way these things work out.

The average Joe can gripe, and will, about superstars essentially taking the NFL model of the best players being free agents every year and contracts being signed with disappearing, reappearing ink and flipping it on its head.

It works in part because of the public’s demand that great players play on great teams and compete for the highest stakes possible, and a failure to do that is shared by franchise and player.

But here is what separates Harden from say, Anthony Davis, or in the last decade, Carmelo Anthony or Dwight Howard.

But those circumstances didn’t take place in a pandemic, and it’ll be a hard sell to a general fan base about a player’s unhappiness when everything is abnormal. It’s nobody’s fault, least of all Harden’s, that the world has changed, but recognizing how to move in it is his responsibility.

It’s hard to say if the pendulum will swing back to teams, but even if it doesn’t Harden will still have to wear his playoff failures in the meantime.

Harden has been close enough to glory where MVP performances would’ve been enough to lift his teams in high-leverage moments, but it’s been he who has come up short — in environments of his choosing, it should be noted.

The Rockets are one of the few teams to win multiple titles in the modern NBA without having the unrealistic expectations to accompany it year after year. The “Choke City” headlines belonged to the pre-title Hakeem Olajuwon teams, not Harden’s similar cough-worthy showings.

Perhaps Harden is a victim of circumstance — the dynastic Golden State Warriors overshadowing his individual brilliance — but also, the circumstances he created. He went all-in on his style of play, maximizing his best soloist tendencies for mind-numbing production without much of a thought to the best route to win a championship.

There wasn’t much diversity to his game, no way to be effective if he didn’t dribble the ball into dust or allowing anyone else to play with it. And every move was made in pressing the limits of that style as opposed to challenging Harden to be better in other places for the good of the team.

One can say he made this bed and should lay in it.

Mustering sympathy for Fertitta isn’t an easy task, considering his groveling at the White House for coronavirus relief because he was paying two employees $40 million dollars, tacitly correlating an inability to pay employees of his other struggling businesses due to his investment in a basketball team.

He’s had plenty of bluster on the floor and off it since taking over in 2017. Instead of going all money in when the Rockets were chasing the Warriors for a ring, he tried to pinch pennies on the back end when it came to roster upgrades.

In a minute way, he inhibited Harden’s ability to overcome his own shortcomings even though Fertitta himself couldn’t have prevented them.

There’s no villain and no victim here, no emotional or practical leverage one side holds over the other—which means there’s no actual shot clock on a transaction and this odyssey could and should extend longer than what we’re used to.

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