James Harden’s exit from the Houston Rockets was nothing short of dramatic prior to and during a season that already had more questions than answers.
The build-up to the saga, is one that was bound to happen. The build up came over the course of some years, with blame being able to go both ways.
Ever since his arrival in Houston in 2012, Harden had been the heartbeat of a Rockets organization that was taking a fall into NBA irrelevance before the trade that brought him over. He dazzled from the jump with a 37-point, 12-assist performance in his first game and never looked back.
The keys to the organization were in Harden’s hands for better and for worse.
The NBA is a superstar-driven league with stars having arguably the most power they’ve ever had in today’s day and age and beautiful endings in such scenarios come few and far between with no championships to show for.
Harden had a say in almost everything, to a fault on the Rockets’ part.
When he pushed for team upgrades, they were done. Then he pushed for the firing of former head coach Kevin McHale, it was done. When he wanted to spend more time in a city, it happened.
But when attempts to help with big names such as Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and his good friend Russell Westbrook couldn’t push them over the hump, the issue could no longer be seen to be the guys he played with, but himself – the one constant of the team since 2012.
His performances in the playoffs not being up to his regular-season standard are well-known. Those performances were largely why their playoff failures fall on Harden.
The Year That Everything Broke
After the Rockets lost to the Los Angeles Lakers 4-1 in the second round of the 2020 playoffs, it seemed the time was officially up on any opportunity for Houston to compete again. Daryl Morey stepped down as general manager, and Mike D’Antoni was out of Houston as well.
Rafael Stone took over for Morey and Stephen Silas replaced D’Antoni. The ones who had his back through everything were gone.
Nov. 11 was the day when The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Russell Westbrook had asked out of Houston. According to multiple reports, Westbrook was no fan of how casually things worked in Houston off the court, despite the resurgence he had on the court late in the season when the Rockets committed to small ball full-time. He was traded Dec. 4 to Washington for John Wall and a future first-round pick.
Harden chose not to speak on reports of him wanting out but his decision to show up a week late to training camp was nothing short of a giveaway. Questions of the shape he was in due to his larger appearance were another factor, as social media and television broadcasters had field days with Harden’s newfound appearance.
Eventually, he broke his silence as the Rockets hadn’t been able to move him yet. Following back-to-back blowout losses to the Lakers and a 3-6 start, he decided to speak out on the situation saying the Rockets “just weren’t good enough” and that he had done everything he could.
The Move and the Fallout
By the next day (Jan.13), the Rockets asked him not to show up to practice and hours later, traded him to the Brooklyn Nets in a blockbuster deal that sent him to his desired destination to play with his good friend Kevin Durant and brought Houston plenty of assets as well.
Was the way Harden went about it all wrong? Absolutely. He could have opted to hold out until traded instead of waiting to reach a breaking point to say what he said. He could have been punctual and showed more respect to his teammates who were really looking to make it work and win games in Houston. This is where the fault falls on Harden.
He made it harder than it needed to be when everyone knew what he wanted.
While there is no love lost between the organization and their former star, beautiful endings do come few and far between in the NBA, especially with superstars who fall short of winning the big one for years.