The final months of James Harden and the Houston Rockets' public breakup
James Harden isn't worried about the details of his divorce with the franchise as he returns to Houston to face the Rockets on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) for the first time since his trade request was finally granted.
"They showed me mad love and respect, and I am just excited to be playing in front of those fans," Harden said.
Harden has apologized for "how it went down" in his final months with the Rockets, when he was pushing for a trade, but Harden said he doesn't regret the actions that led to his desired result. He got what he wanted -- a chance to play for a contender again, specifically the Brooklyn Nets -- and is taking full advantage of the opportunity.
Harden is happy and hooping at an MVP level for the Eastern Conference's hottest team. Meanwhile, times are rough for the Rockets, who are ravaged by injuries and riding a 12-game losing streak entering their former MVP's return.
A review of the monthslong saga preceding Harden's departure from Houston:
"It's very, very frustrating, especially the amount of work that individually I put in. But I'm going to keep chipping away. I'm going to keep going and keep going until I can't go anymore. I feel like we're a piece away. We've just got to keep trying to figure it out, keep trying to grow and put the right pieces around me and Russ to get to where we want to go."
-- Harden, after the Rockets were eliminated by the Los Angeles Lakers in a five-game second-round series
The Rockets' drastic roster renovations didn't lead to improved results.
The Houston front office, at the urging of Harden, flipped Chris Paul and a bundle of first-round picks for friend, former teammate and fellow recent MVP Russell Westbrook. In large part to accommodate Westbrook, the Rockets made an unprecedented commitment to small ball, shipping out big Clint Capela in a four-team deal that landed Robert Covington, suddenly turning 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker into the league's shortest starting center by several inches.
For a while, the Rockets' wild experiment worked. Houston won 10 out of 12 games over a monthlong span, a stretch highlighted by a road win over the Lakers, fueling hope that the unconventional Rockets really could contend.
Then the Rockets ran out of gas, losing four of their last five games before the COVID-19 pandemic halted the season. They never really got back on track, with Harden and Westbrook reporting late to the bubble in Orlando, Florida, after contracting the coronavirus, then Westbrook straining his quadriceps during the seeding schedule.
Houston narrowly avoided the humiliation of losing to Paul's Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, surviving Game 7 by two points thanks to a late series-saving block by Harden. The Rockets beat the Lakers in their second-round opener but were dominated the rest of the series, getting blown out by 23 points in the elimination game.
The primary subjects of Harden's postgame interview were coach Mike D'Antoni's uncertain status with his contract expiring -- resolved the next morning when D'Antoni announced he'd be moving on from Houston -- and the staying power of the Rockets' unusual style. The final question to Harden was an inquiry about whether he was willing to adapt his game, perhaps playing off the ball more.
"To answer your question, yes, I'm willing to do whatever it takes," Harden said. "Especially to win."
"For the last eight years or so, our goal has been to win a championship because we had James Harden. We've still got James Harden. Our goal is still to win a championship, and if you've got him, you're halfway there. It's incumbent on me and Stephen [Silas] and the whole team to figure out the rest of the whole, but the key piece is there."
-- Rafael Stone, in his first news conference since being promoted to Rockets general manager
Daryl Morey, the general manager whose 2012 trade for Harden reinvigorated the Rockets franchise, announced his resignation in October. Morey cited a desire to spend time with his family -- and he was hired as the Philadelphia 76ers' president of basketball operations 13 days later.
Several sources within the Houston organization firmly believe Morey made a preemptive decision, departing in large part because he anticipated Harden would want out, beginning a rebuilding period for the Rockets. According to sources, Morey had expressed concern inside the bubble about not being able to "keep James happy," because of a lack of picks to use as trade fodder to make offseason roster upgrades.
Harden's happiness, or lack thereof, was Stone's problem after the longtime Rockets front-office executive was promoted to replace Morey. But just getting Harden to communicate with Stone was difficult for him and the Houston front office, a factor that delayed the coaching search that ultimately ended with the hiring of Silas, a longtime NBA assistant who was a finalist when Houston hired D'Antoni four years earlier.
By early November, the Rockets had privately come to terms with the fact that the Harden-Westbrook pairing fizzled, as the friends no longer wanted to play together. That was problematic, given the steep price the Rockets paid in the Westbrook trade the previous summer, but Houston could stomach searching for a Westbrook trade.
As long as the Rockets had Harden, they had hope. They just needed to convince Harden, who annually pushed for offseason urgency in pursuit of a title, of that.
"I have no clarity about the message. What the reasoning is, is on him. He's the one who can explain why or why not he's here. For me to make inferences and think about the possibilities isn't real to me. What's real is he's not here, and he has a reason, but that's on him to tell whoever what his reason is."
-- Silas, on the second day of Rockets training camp
Weeks before camp opened, a high-ranking Rockets source told ESPN that the team was "willing to get uncomfortable," stressing that the front office felt no urgency to trade Harden and Westbrook before the start of the season despite the stars' unhappiness, vowing not to be pressured into dealing them for pennies on the dollar.
After avoiding the Toyota Center when the rest of the NBA's players were doing individual workouts at team facilities, Harden was missing from the beginning of training camp, instead attending rapper Lil Baby's birthday party in Atlanta, lavishing his friend with extravagant gifts and posting pictures of the maskless affair on Instagram.
From there, Harden went to Las Vegas. The Rockets attributed Harden's absence for the first team workout to the league's health and safety protocols, but Silas acknowledged the next day that it was a holdout.
"As far as timetable, there's no timetable as far as I know. And it is a setback," Silas said. "You want your best player to be here. And there's a short window. It is a setback. I have to be honest and understand this is a setback not having one of the best players in the NBA here."
Harden's late arrival ensured he'd miss essentially all of camp, as he had to test negative for the coronavirus for six consecutive days before being cleared to join team activities. Harden's explanation for the Atlanta and Vegas excursions: "I was just training." Harden had certainly convinced the Rockets' brass that he was serious about his trade request. His priority was executing an exit strategy.
"We're just not good enough. Chemistry, talentwise, just everything. ... I love this city. I literally have done everything that I can. I mean, this situation is crazy. It's something that I don't think can be fixed."
-- Harden, after a Jan. 12 loss to the Lakers, his last game in a Rockets uniform
Harden, well aware that the Rockets' trade talks with the Nets and 76ers had intensified, delivered what amounted to a farewell speech during his virtual news conference following Houston's fourth loss in five games.
He walked out of the Toyota Center as a Rocket for the final time.
Harden was told to stay home instead of coming to practice the next day, as Stone put the finishing touches on a four-team deal that sent Harden to Brooklyn and netted the Rockets four first-round picks, four first-round pick swaps, former All-Star shooting guard Victor Oladipo and a couple of other players for salary filler.
Houston's asking price for Harden had been a young franchise cornerstone and a historic package of picks. The Rockets ended up having to compromise, choosing the Nets' offer headlined by a picks bundle over the 76ers' proposal with Ben Simmons as the centerpiece but significantly fewer draft assets. And that closed the chapter of Harden's tenure in Houston, which featured eight seasons of individual brilliance but always fell short of the NBA Finals.
"I thought I would never leave that franchise. I thought I was going to be in Houston, obviously, for the rest of my career. Things happened. I've got different goals, and I've seen a different vision for myself and my career and my family."
Harden has walked the walk since his arrival in Brooklyn, following through on his vow to fit in with Nets stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, hushing the skeptics who wondered how three of this generation's best scorers could possibly share one ball.
Harden has adapted his game to focus more on facilitating. Harden has always been an elite passer -- having won the NBA's assists title in 2016-17 before claiming the league's scoring crown the next three seasons -- but that part of his game has especially flourished with the Nets. He has averaged 11.3 assists in 22 games with Brooklyn, and he officially became the point guard upon Irving's declaration of backcourt roles during a practice last month.
Harden is still a premier scorer, but he has the luxury of being more selective with his shot with the Nets. He's averaging 25.3 points per game -- which would be Harden's lowest-scoring season since he was the Thunder's sixth man -- but with career-best clips in field goal percentage (.490), 3-point percentage (.419) and effective field goal percentage (.589).
Harden is also pulling down 8.7 rebounds per game for Brooklyn, which would be another career best. He has seven triple-doubles for the Nets, who have won nine of their past 10 games despite Durant's extended absence due to a hamstring strain.
Yes, Harden has done whatever it takes to win. For him, it meant getting out of Houston.