James Harden got his wish. Now the Rockets must rebuild who they are again.
Harden has defined this era of the NBA, as his unorthodox style of play shaped an offensive system the league had never seen before. In recent weeks, the Houston front office held out hope it could keep Harden happy enough to stay. No one ever wants to trade an all-timer still capable of playing at the peak of his powers. But a perfect storm occurred, leading the Rockets to rapidly seek and then complete the blockbuster trade with Brooklyn.
The Nets felt more urgency to complete a deal largely due to the recent absence of Kyrie Irving and the unknown date of his return. Harden gives the Nets a third superstar, but he’s also Irving insurance. If the Nets can’t rely on Irving, they’ll still remain in contention by pairing Harden with Kevin Durant; and if Irving gets back and buys in, they could be favorites. Brooklyn was ready to pay whatever it took to make it happen, which led the Sixers to act as well. The two franchises bid against each other over the past 24 to 48 hours. Meanwhile, Harden saw the window was open and jumped out.
After the Lakers smashed the Rockets for the second game in a row, Harden went to the podium and claimed his team was “not good enough.” These comments infuriated everyone in Houston, from Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta to the players in the locker room, particularly John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, league sources say. Fertitta pushed for a deal to be completed sooner rather than later to move on from Harden, and the teams found something that worked with a four-way deal that brought Victor Oladipo, four first-round picks, and four first-round pick swaps back to Houston. What a whirlwind.
Wall and Cousins have been the players most disgruntled with Harden, and they didn’t hide it, league sources say. This should come as no major surprise after Wall and Cousins publicly blasted Harden following Tuesday’s loss. But there was animosity between Wall and Harden from the beginning of their relationship, league sources say. Wall still sees himself as a player who can be the face of the franchise and felt like Harden was holding him and the team back from reaching their potential, league sources say. As the days passed, the annoyance across the team only grew.
Poor choices and poor conditioning by Harden have undoubtedly prevented this Houston roster from establishing any chemistry. But he’ll go down in history as one of the best to ever play for the Rockets, despite never making a Finals. Harden led teams that went to a Game 6 and a Game 7 against two historically great Warriors teams. He’s an innovator who’s changed the way the game is played. He’s an MVP. He’s one of the greatest scorers in league history. Despite the rotten past few months, Jan. 13, 2021, will be remembered as one of the most painful days in Rockets history.
But even after Harden’s departure, the Rockets may still have a toxic mix. Wall and Cousins have established leadership positions in Houston’s locker room, yet both were traded because of their apparent negative influence on teams looking to make fresh starts. Wall and Cousins may be gamers who want to win, but their tactics haven’t led to much winning in their careers; it’s most often led to drama and frustration.
Wall, Cousins, and Oladipo are all returning from major leg injuries that have kept them out for extended time. Wall has resembled his former self but isn’t all the way back athletically. Cousins is struggling badly while playing on a veteran’s minimum contract that doesn’t become fully guaranteed for another month. Oladipo has been solid this season but still isn’t back to his All-Star level. Good health is certainly no guarantee for this roster. Cousins and Oladipo will both be free agents this summer, but Wall’s signed for the next two seasons at a high price tag of $44.3 million in 2021-22 and $47.4 million in 2022-23, so he’ll likely be in Houston for the foreseeable future.
The Rockets may not be done trading, either. The Athletic’s Kelly Iko reported that multiple teams have inquired about lockdown defender P.J. Tucker. Two league sources tell me Tucker’s value around the league is about three second-round picks. The Rockets may hold out for a team to offer a first ahead of the March 25 trade deadline, but Tucker is 35 and will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, which hurts his value. Houston could also still flip Oladipo, who wanted out of Indiana but landed in another place he doesn’t want to be. League sources say Oladipo still hopes to find himself in Miami.
Maybe it doesn’t matter if the Rockets are a depressing disaster. The decisions made in the upcoming drafts will set the coordinates for the rest of this decade. Even though Houston doesn’t have the rights to its own first-round pick in 2021, scouts and executives consider the 2021 NBA draft to be strong, with talent to be found throughout the first round. The eight first-rounders received in the four-way trade could pan out, or be nice trade chips who can help the Rockets build another winning team.
The Rockets also aren’t bereft of hope on their current roster. Christian Wood has been a bright spot, averaging 22.6 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks. Wood has been a dynamic offensive presence, scoring from all areas of the floor. He had natural pick-and-roll chemistry with Harden, which he’ll now need to build with Wall and Oladipo. At only 25, he looks the part of a long-term building block for this team. So does Jae’Sean Tate, a 25-year-old spark plug who at 6-foot-4 comes off the bench and brings energy. Tate needs to develop his jumper, but he impacts winning. Who knows? Oladipo, who’s only 28, could find his All-Star form and help lead this team to exciting moments like he has in recent years for Indiana.
The Rockets undeniably have a murkier future without Harden, and the blend in the locker room could lead to more uncomfortable moments. But sometimes a reset is a necessary step to rebuild a winner.