The Rockets created a culture that gave James Harden all the power

Editor’s notice: This story was initially revealed on Dec. 16, 2020. The Houston Rockets have traded James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets, sources inform ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne.

THE HOUSTON ROCKETS tradition within the James Harden period, which bridges two homeowners and now 4 head coaches, is likely to be greatest summed up by a former staffer’s three phrases:

“Whatever James desires.”

Unless they had been on the entrance finish of a back-to-back set, it was primarily a positive factor that the Rockets stayed in a single day — and even an additional day — after video games in Los Angeles, Phoenix and different street cities that rank amongst Harden’s favourite stops.

If the Rockets had two or three days between video games, it was a superb wager Harden would name for an off day and constitution a non-public jet to celebration in Las Vegas or one other metropolis. He at all times will get an excused absence from the primary observe after the All-Star break for a similar purpose.

“Just James being James,” these at the moment inside the franchise say. But these circumstances are drastically totally different than at any earlier level of the perennial All-Star’s eight-year Houston tenure.

Harden has pushed the Rockets to improve each offseason, saying he would need to be traded in the event that they could not contend, sources mentioned. And he had remaining say on issues past simply journey and observe schedules as properly. He may name the pictures on personnel strikes, each on the roster and the teaching employees, an influence he flexed to push for the firing of head coach Kevin McHale and departures of co-stars Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, sources mentioned.

And the Rockets thought-about it good enterprise to do what Harden wished to maintain a traditionally elite participant pleased. But when Harden tried to hurry the Rockets to commerce him in current weeks regardless of the shortage of a proposal that they thought-about honest worth, it wasn’t the annual ultimatum for enchancment. It was one thing extra.

By leaving the Rockets twisting within the wind whereas camp opened with little communication, Harden made his absence the main focus of rookie head coach Stephen Silas’ first days of observe. And by blowing off the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols, partying maskless through the pandemic and boasting about it on Instagram, Harden revealed what may come if he does not get his approach.

“Yeah, he will act up,” a former Rockets staffer mentioned.

“He’s by no means heard ‘no’ earlier than.”

Teams that may make actual affords for James Harden

MULTIPLE ROCKETS OFFICIALS acknowledge that the complete group has been “complicit” within the tradition that has been created over the previous eight years.

“We knew who the boss of the group was,” a former Rockets assistant coach mentioned. “That’s simply a part of what the deal was once you go to Houston. The gamers, coaches, GM, proprietor all know.

“I do not blame James. I blame the group. It’s not his fault. He did what they allowed him to do.”

Yet there may be not a consensus amongst present and former Rockets officers and staffers that empowering Harden to such extremes was the unsuitable path. The Rockets had been trending towards NBA irrelevancy earlier than Harden’s arrival in Houston, lacking the playoffs every of the earlier three seasons.

Former Rockets normal supervisor Daryl Morey took a calculated danger in projecting that the reigning Sixth Man of the Year would turn out to be a bona fide celebrity when he shipped Kevin Martin, then-rookie lottery decide Jeremy Lamb and a bundle of NBA draft picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Harden. The Rockets have not missed the playoffs since, the one franchise that may make that declare.

“If they’ve a number of days off, all people is aware of: James goes to fly some other place and celebration. But he will come again and have a 50-point triple-double, so that they’re OK with it.”

Member of Houston’s 2019-20 teaching employees

Houston hasn’t completed its final objective throughout its run with Harden, advancing to the Western Conference finals twice however by no means previous that time. But the brilliance of Harden, the 2017-18 MVP and a top-three finisher within the balloting 4 different instances over the previous six years, offered Houston life like hope of contending that solely a handful of groups have every season.

He’s additionally one of many sport’s most sturdy stars, routinely rating among the many league leaders in minutes and sometimes enjoying by means of accidents equivalent to sprained ankles and shoulder bruises that may trigger different gamers to relaxation. All this stuff made it simple for the Rockets to look the opposite approach when it got here to Harden’s hard-living way of life.

“If they’ve a number of days off, all people is aware of: James goes to fly some other place and celebration,” a member of final season’s teaching employees mentioned. “But he will come again and have a 50-point triple-double, so that they’re OK with it.”

But the shortage of self-discipline and a spotlight to element hasn’t been OK with Paul and Russell Westbrook, in the end resulting in breakups between Harden and people two stars.

The peak of the franchise’s Harden period got here throughout Paul’s first season in Houston, when the Rockets had a league-best 65 wins through the common season and constructed a 3-2 lead over the Golden State Warriors within the Western Conference finals. But the Rockets misplaced the final two video games of that collection with Paul sidelined — “a hamstring away” is a phrase that may eternally hang-out Houston followers — and the chemistry between the ball-dominant co-stars blew up the next season.

One of Paul’s greatest beefs, sources mentioned, was that Harden mainly opted to not take part within the Rockets’ offense when the ball wasn’t in his palms, generally barely stepping over half court docket whereas spectating when Paul had the ball. Harden rapidly uninterested in Paul barking about his considerations, which included lobbying coach Mike D’Antoni to implement extra construction and motion in an offensive system that revolved round Harden’s isolations, sources mentioned.

Rockets administration believed these points may very well be ironed out and wished to run it again with the Harden-Paul duo final season. Those plans modified as quickly as Westbrook turned obtainable.

Harden insisted the Rockets get the deal accomplished, saying he’d demand a commerce in the event that they did not discover a method to convey his childhood pal and former OKC teammate to Houston, sources mentioned. The Rockets paid a value that was thought-about steep on the time — Paul, 2024 and 2026 first-round picks, and swap rights in 2021 and 2025.

Sources mentioned Westbrook regularly expressed his displeasure through the season with not with the ability to “play my recreation,” as he put it. There had been questions in regards to the Harden-Westbrook match after they had been pushing to play collectively once more, together with D’Antoni privately expressing his considerations, sources mentioned.

Those considerations had been quieted, internally and externally, when Westbrook thrived after the Rockets’ swap to small ball opened up the ground. He averaged 32.2 factors, 8.2 rebounds and seven.0 assists per recreation whereas taking pictures 53.1% from the ground over a two-month span earlier than the coronavirus pandemic halted the season.

HOUSTON’S CASUAL CULTURE appalled Westbrook. In Oklahoma City, although he loved the identical type of celebrity privileges as Harden has had in Houston, the Thunder operated with the self-discipline of a navy unit underneath Westbrook’s watch. The Rockets had been a stark distinction, particularly final season underneath D’Antoni, who was by no means often known as a disciplinarian and who was a lame duck within the final yr of his contract after extension negotiations infamously fizzled twice over the summer time.

Westbrook did not tolerate tardiness. With the Rockets, scheduled departure instances had been handled as mere solutions by Harden and others.

“Nothing ever begins on time,” a former Rockets staffer mentioned. “The aircraft is at all times late. The bus is rarely on time. … It’s simply an organized AAU workforce.”

On one event within the Florida bubble, Harden waited to get his every day COVID-19 testing till simply earlier than the Rockets’ movie session was scheduled to start out. When he wasn’t on time, Westbrook barked, “Start the movie! Start with out him!” D’Antoni defined that they’d simply have to start out over when Harden arrived, which did not do a lot to calm Westbrook.

Whether Westbrook or Harden wished out first is not clear, however they not wished to play collectively, a season after the Rockets mortgaged their draft future to make it occur.

Morey, the person who negotiated that cope with proprietor Tilman Fertitta’s approval, made his exit earlier than both star requested to be traded. Rafael Stone, who was promoted to normal supervisor after Morey’s resignation and transfer to turn out to be president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers, was left to cope with the messy aftermath.

As one high-ranking Rockets supply informed ESPN in November, the franchise was “keen to get uncomfortable” by going into the season with disgruntled superstars on the roster. The Rockets ended up buying and selling Westbrook simply earlier than camp opened, sending him to the Washington Wizards for John Wall (recent off a two-year damage layoff) and a protected future first-round decide, an admission that the earlier offseason’s deal to accumulate Westbrook was a disastrous determination.

But Houston has its heels dug in relating to Harden, refusing at this level to contemplate a proposal except it features a younger franchise cornerstone and a bundle of first-round picks and/or promising gamers on rookie offers. Sources say Harden, who had been singularly targeted on attempting to pressure his method to the Brooklyn Nets, has indicated to the Rockets that he can be agreeable to a commerce to the 76ers or different choose contenders.

After the Rockets let it’s identified they might not be swayed by unhappiness, Harden delayed his arrival to camp, as a substitute selecting to hang around with rapper Lil Baby — gifting his pal a Prada bag filled with honey buns, a $100,000 brick of money (aka a “Honey Bun”) and a Richard Mille watch price properly into six figures for Lil Baby’s birthday — whereas leaving Silas hanging.

Harden reported to the Rockets on Dec. 8, every week after his teammates, examined damaging for the coronavirus for an NBA-mandated six consecutive days and eventually practiced with the workforce on Monday. He had a “good dialog” about basketball technique with Silas, in line with the coach, who had minimal communication together with his level guard till that time.

On Wednesday, Harden spoke to the media for the primary time since his late arrival to coaching camp however didn’t straight reply questions on his need to be traded.

The Rockets hope Harden, who performed 21 minutes in Tuesday’s preseason victory over the San Antonio Spurs, can be skilled as they patiently discover the commerce market, looking for a deal that would not doom the franchise to an extended, painful rebuild.

“You cannot get mad at your child if you happen to let him eat sweet each evening after which abruptly one evening you do not they usually throw a tantrum,” an ex-Houston assistant coach mentioned. “You’re the one who allow them to eat sweet each evening.

“The Rockets turned the group over to James, and now they should dwell with the fallout.”

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