Former Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni often spoke of the Rockets needing to play with "great spirit." It wasn't the same as intensity, exactly. The Rockets, even at their worst, weren't known as a team lacking in hard work. But, what they did seem to be, at times, was lethargic. The vibe around the team was even sullen. It might be convenient to blame the pandemic, but the feeling stretched all the way back to the previous season before COVID-19, injury issues and a dramatically changed roster.
It permeated the offseason as D'Antoni declined to return. He was followed by Daryl Morey. Then Russell Westbrook wanted out and then James Harden. Three of those four are gone and Harden hasn't exactly been gung ho to get back to Toyota Center.
Whether or not Harden remains, it is clear, even from two exhibition games, that there is a change in attitude with this squad. If they have acquired anything this offseason besides new players, coaches and front office staff, it appears to be enthusiasm.
John Wall, Demarcus Cousins and Eric Gordon clearly have a renewed sense of purpose. Wall and Cousins missed the better part of two seasons with injuries and Gordon, beset by knee problems last year, is coming off the worst season of his career. Even newcomer David Nwaba is fresh from an injury rehab.
Then you have the young guys like Christian Wood, hungry to prove himself after getting his first real opportunity in Detroit last season and capitalizing, or Jae'Sean Tate, who has an endless motor. And no one can deny Gerald Green, who should consider city ambassador as a career choice once his playing days are over.
No one should freak out over the play in two preseason games. Winning and losing them are irrelevant as is how many of the guys play, with rotations still up in the air and young guys getting more minutes than they might see all season. But, what you can watch for is energy and it is evident.
What has been missing from the Rockets the last couple season has been that joy that was ever present early in Harden's Rockets career. Maybe it is the weight of expectations or the frustration of constantly falling just short of a championship, but it wore on the core players. Then, the chaos of a pandemic, multiple trades and a complete change in the front office, had to have hit guys like Harden and P.J. Tucker, who himself wants a new contract, hard.
It is why the entrance of guys like Wall, Cousins and Wood is so important. It isn't just their contributions on the stat sheet or how they change the rotations. It is how much they love being on the floor, how much fun they clearly are having. If any team needed an injection of infectious joy, its the Rockets.
Whether that will be enough to make Harden rethink his desire to be traded is anyone's guess. He'll likely be back in practice and playing preseason games this week and the Rockets don't seem in a rush to trade the former MVP. Maybe his new teammates will recharge his battery or maybe it won't.
The only thing we can say for sure is that whatever the outcome of those negotiations, the feeling around the team is better from the outside and the organization should seize upon that energy moving forward, even if that means moving on from yet another superstar to do it.