"He quit." Those were the words of Rockets broadcaster Calvin Murphy accidentally caught by microphones as a recent Rockets postgame show was heading to commercial. He was speaking of Rockets star James Harden.
In a Tuesday night postgame press conference, Harden made it official. “I love this city,” he said. “I’ve literally done everything that I can. The situation is crazy. It’s something I don’t think can be fixed, so. Yeah.”
With that, it would seem the offseason of demanding a trade, and showing up late and out of shape to camp in violation of COVID protocols has finally reached its apex for Harden and the team.
No one can say the Rockets didn't try. They traded and traded and traded again to appease their former MVP. First Dwight Howard then Chris Paul then, in a costly last ditch effort, Russell Westbrook. Now, John Wall is left to deal with the fallout along with a rookie coach and GM.
Harden has been a lightning rod of criticism for most of his Rockets tenure. The mercurial guard has been featured in videos showing cherry-picked lackadaisical defensive performances, blasted for coming into camp overweight after a summer of frolicking with a Kardashian, and bemoaned around the league for how his game has dovetailed with a Rockets style of play many abhor.
But he has also been a dazzling performer inside Toyota Center, winning multiple scoring titles and an MVP, if not a championship. He remains one of the most dynamic players and perhaps one of the all-time great offensive players in league history. But, his legacy is fraying and despite the it's-not-me-it's-you routine at his presser, there are plenty of GMs and coaches loathe to take on someone who will so radically morph their entire team's chemistry and style of play.
It is fitting that on the same day Andre Johnson blasted the Texans for their ineptitude and the Rockets were geared up in their H-Town Columbia blue unis (with none other than former Houston Oiler Webster Slaughter in the house to take the charity free throw during warm ups), Harden would decide to call it quits for real — nevermind that it was just one day before the one-year anniversary of the announcement of the Astros cheating sanctions, and firings of A.J. Hinch and Jeff Lunhow. No matter what happens, Houston sports is going to keep right on Houston sporting.
Regardless of the circumstances they find themselves in now, it is incumbent upon the Rockets to get the ball rolling and get Harden moved while proceeding with extreme caution. He certainly made it more difficult on them with his low-key resignation Tuesday night.
Harden is still an extremely valuable asset and the Rockets know it. They also know that other teams are well aware of how good he is. This won't be Bill O'Brien dumping DeAndre Hopkins for chump change. This organization has said from the start of camp that they are willing to be uncomfortable. And, quite frankly, they might need to be for a while.
Reports are surfacing that the Nets, Harden's preferred destination, will offer anything other than Kevin Durant for Harden including multiple first round draft picks. But the Rockets don't want Kyrie Irving, the Nets other best player, or any of the modestly talented young players they have to offer. That would indicate a need to involve a third team in a deal and that could happen, but the Rockets aren't going to jump too quickly, nor should they.
Their demands have been pretty clear. They want a young, talented star player plus multiple (at least two, maybe more) quality first round draft picks to replenish the supply they squandered in the Westbrook deal. Role players, if they have to move either Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker or both in any deals, will need to fit into the design of the team moving forward.
If the team needs to sit Harden while they find a suitable deal, so be it. For all the greatness James Harden has brought to the Rockets since he was acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder, the lack of enthusiasm he has shown early in this season and his all out abandonment of his teammates because he wants to play somewhere that will make it easier for him to get a ring, is a massive stain on his legacy.
For the Rockets, this is a tipping point for the franchise. Do the right things and they can set themselves up with a high-quality roster filled with young talent and a cache of draft picks. Make a mistake and it could set them back years.
Harden quit. The Rockets don't have that luxury.