It’s a sight Houston fans have grown accustomed to seeing over the years: James Harden moving methodically, out in the distant reaches of space, far away from all of his teammates, sizing up the opposition, preparing to make his move. Granted, they’re not used to seeing him do it against the Rockets, but hey: 2020’s been a weird year, man.
ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski reported Monday that, despite the Rockets’ recent addition of five-time All-Star point guard John Wall, Harden remains “unmoved and uninterested in pursuing a new partnership.” Harden still wants a trade away from the franchise with which he’s spent the last eight seasons; his internecine iso attack continues.
This was to be expected. As nice as it was to watch Wall work over the weekend after 23 months away from the game, and as good as he looked at times in averaging 17 points and 6.5 assists in Houston’s preseason openers against the Bulls …
… it’d be a fairly sizable upset for Harden to be so heartened by what a player nearly two years removed from the most devastating injury a basketball player can suffer has shown through two preseason performances that he’d suddenly and completely reverse course. It’s lovely that Wall appears to still have the juice and the jets, the vision and the touch, to be a very good player. But after years of cycling through All-Star-caliber second bananas, that’s not really what the Harden affair is about.
At this stage, a hell of a lot more would likely have to change for the 2017-18 MVP to move off his trade request—about the state of play in Houston under Tilman Fertitta, about the brash governor’s willingness to green-light spending into the luxury tax to build and maintain a winner, about where Houston sits on the rebuilding-contending spectrum. And, perhaps most importantly: about what Harden not only wants, but feels like he needs as he moves through the second half of a Hall of Fame career that has inarguably changed the sport, but that has just as inarguably lacked the moments of postseason transcendence boasted by all of Harden’s peers among the ranks of the all-time offensive greats.
It’s “find the path to a ring or forever be defined by the lack of one” legacy shit, at this point—the moment of creeping dread and existential crisis that faces every superstar of this era who’s yet to win the big one. (Or even the one before the big one.) It’s why Harden’s reportedly willing to countenance moves to the Nets, Sixers, Heat, and Bucks—teams with one or more established All-NBA-caliber talents that all operate in the what’s long been (though less so at the top these days) the weaker conference—and why, whether you think it’s misguided or not, his demand stands firm, even after a couple of encouraging outings for Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.
To some degree, that means the situation has reached a point of stasis. Harden completed the six consecutive negative COVID-19 tests mandated by the league after his infamous pre-training-camp excursions to Atlanta and Las Vegas, joined the Rockets for practice on Monday, and will play against the Spurs on Tuesday. He “has expressed to Rockets ownership and management his intention to be professional and engaged upon joining the team,” which, y’know, better late than never, but sure, OK. The Rockets’ brain trust will continue to seek out deals commensurate with the value of the league’s reigning three-time scoring champion—their last ask of Philly, according to Yaron Weitzman, was Ben Simmons and three first-round picks—and, until a suitor offers one, endeavor to do whatever’s in their power to shift Harden’s thinking. Given the stakes, it might take awhile before we see any meaningful movement.
But while ultimate success in the NBA is a black-and-white question answered by the Larry O’Brien Trophy come season’s end, day-to-day life in the league can tend to be a matter of perception. Amid the stasis of a trade demand unmet, Houston presents the possibility of a different sort of story.
For eight years, everything about the franchise has pointed at Harden, flowed from him, orbited around him. Now, though, all parties involved are forced to consider life without him, and what might grow to fill the yawning space he’d leave behind. There’s other stuff to focus on, and maybe even feel good about; the longer this plays out, the more the Rockets—not ownership and management, necessarily, but the coaches and players clocking in to field inquiries and a team—might become something of a sentimental favorite.
After spending 20 years working his way up other coaches’ benches, developing a reputation as one of the most respected assistants in the league for his preparation and offensive mind, Stephen Silas finally gets his chance to run the show … and walks into this. Wall and Cousins, after years of injuries and setbacks, finally get the opportunity to reunite in the pros, to try to rebuild one another’s careers, and write a new chapter together.
“It was a good showing for whoever’s watching, whoever’s interested as well,” Cousins told reporters after scoring 14 points in 14 minutes during a 125-104 win in Chicago to open the Rockets’ preseason slate. “It shows that it’s still a really good team here, regardless of the circumstances that are floating around the team right now. It’s still a really good team in place, a lot of talent. We’re not rolling over because a few pieces are missing. We’re going to go out and perform. Hopefully, those pieces join us and we continue to improve as a team.”
Christian Wood missed the Rockets’ first two preseason games, but the 25-year-old big man will look to seize the opportunity to show that his breakout turn in Detroit last season was no fluke, that the size and skill he brings to the table can translate in a significantly larger role, and that he’s well worth the three-year, $41 million investment Houston made in him in free agency. P.J. Tucker’s still waiting, not so patiently these days, for a well-deserved contract extension after years of overperforming his below-market deal to be the undersized 3-and-D backbone of Houston’s perennial contenders. Eric Gordon and the rest of the holdover Rockets will be eager to show that they weren’t just along for the ride these past few years; that Houston’s success wasn’t solely about Harden’s playmaking, Mike D’Antoni’s orchestration, or Daryl Morey’s maneuvers; and that they have value independent of their role as supporting cast members keeping everything else grounded so Harden can chew scenery.
Whether we’re closer to the start of this saga or the end of it remains unclear; there’s an argument to be made that it makes sense for all parties involved to slow-play things, let Harden show his wares and the Rockets try to coalesce around him, keep talking, and discuss deal frameworks through the start of the season and up to the trade deadline (which may wind up coming in late March). As it drags out, though, everyone’s got something to prove, something to fight for, a reason to go all in. As we wait to find out whether or not Harden changes his mind, the rest of the Rockets have an opportunity to change ours—to start writing a different story about themselves and the franchise. That might not mean much in the grand scheme of the NBA’s title chase. But it can make for a mighty compelling watch all the same.