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| Sports |

Abuse of Power: Harden, Easterby, Luhnow Run Houston Teams Into the Ground

Bill O'Brien is one of several Houston sports power brokers who broke their respective teams.
Bill O'Brien is one of several Houston sports power brokers who broke their respective teams.
Photo by Eric Sauseda
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Just a couple years ago, the Rockets were perennial championship contenders with an MVP star and respected front office staff. The Texans had just drafted Deshaun Watson and still had J.J. Watt in his prime. The Astros, coming off a World Series, had a young core of talent and a revered manager/GM combo.

Today, Houston's three major sports teams are in chaos and at the center of all three are some remarkable scandals that all point to the same thing: too much power in the wrong hands.

In the case of the Astros, the widely reported sign stealing scandal revealed a culture of winning run amok under the guiding hand of former GM Jeff Luhnow. While he has since denied any knowledge of what was going on with secret cameras and clanging garbage cans, people around the game know better. Even owner Jim Crane admitted that the culture had soured with his team. Cleaning house, which they did prior to last season, was their only chance at righting the ship.

Whether new GM James Click is able to change that culture and chart a new path for the Astros is still up in the air. Credit veteran manager Dusty Baker for steadying things in the interim and weathering the storm he inherited. But, much still remains undecided.

The Texans have never reached the heights of either the Rockets or Astros, yet they ceded power internally first to Bill O'Brien, a coach whose record and experience did not merit the sovereignty given him by the McNair family, and then to Jack Easterby, a team chaplain who saw a meteoric rise in power after being hired by the Texans ostensibly to mold a new culture from within. Instead, as documented in an explosive story from Sports Illustrated, Easterby used a naive and frustratingly gullible McNair family to gain dominance within the organization in a Game of Thrones-style power grab.

Jeff Lunhow led the Astros to a championship, but at the cost of the franchise's reputation.
Jeff Lunhow led the Astros to a championship, but at the cost of the franchise's reputation.
Photo by Jack Gorman

While the Texans appear to be taking their new coach and GM search seriously, there is still a sense that ownership is largely clueless about how to run a football organization. They've hired a quasi-celebrity group that includes former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson to lead the search for new management, but that circus feels more performative than substantive. Normally, you would rely on your internal brain trust to handle such critically important matters, but that means actually having an internal brain trust in the first place.

Then there are the Rockets, the one team who it would seem decided to hand over the reins of the organization to a player rather than a coach or GM. ESPN reported this week that the Rockets team structure could be summed up by the words of a former member of the Rockets staff: "Whatever James wants."

Just a couple of the stunning revelations in the story include how members of the team including Harden were routinely late for film sessions and other team activities, and how the team would remain in cities the star guard liked for extra days or call off practices at Harden's behest so he could charter a plane to party with friends. All the while, he was consulted on virtually everything and all his demands were supposedly met with unfailing fealty.

It is tempting to crush the Astros and Texans for their inept failings, and they are absolutely deserving, but those mistakes were born out of poor choices at the executive level. The Rockets, on the other hand, put the franchise in the hands of a mercurial, millennial superstar athlete with a penchant for celebrity parties. For the appearance of competence on display inside Toyota Center offices over the last decade (they have been widely praised around the league for their innovative practices), allowing Harden to have this level of control demonstrates, at best, an incredible level of callowness and, at worst, outright, willful negligence.

James Harden has wielded unimaginable power with the Rockets.
James Harden has wielded unimaginable power with the Rockets.
Photo by Eric Sauseda

Regardless of who was at the helm of these disasters, the end result for the Texans, Astros and Rockets is a trio of organizations in disarray because they didn't have a culture strong enough to prevent something like this from happening.

If you feel like digging for a reason (or excuse, pick your poison) why, consider the across-the-board lack of experience at the ownership level. Jim Crane, who has led the Astros the longest, made his bed with Jeff Luhnow right after buying the team in what seemed like a brilliant move at the moment (and, based solely on results, probably was never mind the fallout).

Cal McNair recently took over the Texans, his only qualification that his last name was the same of his father, Robert, the team's original owner who passed away. And no one would hold the senior McNair up as one of the great football minds in the NFL.

Finally, there is Tilman Fertitta, who is practically a rookie. It's difficult to imagine a player like Harden consolidating that much power with Les Alexander still in charge even though this all began under his watch.

It would be foolish to think star players with other teams don't get consulted on major decisions from personnel to coaches. They should. But it needs to be weighted with other factors. As to how a GM or, for the love of God, a team chaplain is able to turn your franchise into his own personal fiefdom, it's impossible to say, but it demonstrates how quickly a team can rot from the inside out while you aren't paying attention.

It takes a special kind of talent to go from one of the hottest sports cities in America to the laughing stock of professional athletics in roughly two years, but there has at least been tacit acknowledgement of the problems that face all three franchises. The Astros have cleaned house and the Texans are, allegedly, trying to do the same. At this point, the only choice for the Rockets might be a trade of their clearly pampered superstar, whatever the cost. Given his low energy, uninformative press conference he gave on Wednesday, Harden appears to be more than willing.

Houston won't ascend back to the upper tier of sports cities anytime soon, but maybe we can creep our way back towards mediocrity. At the moment and considering the current state of things, that would be a huge win.

And let's hope the owners learn something about who to trust with that power in the future.

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