James Harden is looking for a way out of Houston. He has not yet "demanded" a trade. The wording in Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon's latest information is softer than that; the pair write that Harden is "open" to a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers and other contenders in their most recent ESPN report. Coupled with Harden's absence from the start of training camp and everybody's attitude when asked about it, his time in Houston appears nearing an end.
The issue for the franchise is the circumstances have developed to a point where they're going to have to settle in any trade for Harden. As Woj points out in a follow-up tweet to his above report, any team who could trade for Harden is loathed to give up the haul we usually see for a player of his caliber because of how quickly things have desinigrated with the Rockets and the complete lack of guarantee that he would want to stay more than a year or two.
The Rockets, no matter how much they might want it, will not be getting an Anthony Davis package for Harden. No team is going to line up to give them five first-rounders and three good young players for his services. He's making far too much money (owed $131 million over the next three seasons) and his value drops with each day as it becomes apparent to the rest of the league that the Rockets will have a problem on their hands if he's on the roster come December 22.
The issue then becomes just how big of a problem the Rockets view that outcome. If they're fine trying to strong-arm Harden, then they can hold out for however long they want. They still won't get an AD or Paul George-type package, mostly due to his monster contract and the various financial implications of COVID-19, but they will afford themselves the patience to wait for a deal they think is fair.
However, that has not worked out for any organization in the position the Rockets currently find themselves in over the last decade. One unhappy superstar's poor attitude permeates throughout the building. Relationships sour all over the place, and a work environment where nobody is happy makes for little success. The Pelicans ended up with more than enough compensation for their own superstar in Davis, but the months where he was sitting out due to an injury leading into the offseason he was finally traded were unpleasant for everyone involved.
Nobody wants that, and it is logical to assume the Rockets really don't want that in the first season of a new head coach/general manager pairing. So they'll have to settle. They aren't going to get Ben Simmons and a horde of picks for Harden. They won't get Brooklyn's first-round picks for the next seven years along with a package including Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen. In all likelihood, they're going to have to choose.
Do the Rockets want picks or young players with some potential? Philly probably isn't going to give up Simmons, as noted by ESPN above. Their best hope is to get some decent young guys like the ones the Nets are offering or 2-3 first-round picks. They will not get to have their cake and eat it, too. They must choose between betting their future on draft picks or hoping a collection of role players can help John Wall return to form and new head coach Stephen Silas is good enough to keep the team in contention without the center of its universe for the last eight years.
Harden is just a strange case when it comes to superstar trades. He puts up outlandish statistics and has an MVP under his belt, but has so clearly wilted in the playoffs that questions about his viability as a postseason player are perfectly legitimate. He is making a huge amount of money during what may be the only time in modern league history that teams have widespread concerns about the bottom line. He is an unparalleled scoring threat yet has transformed into that threat because he has the ball more than anybody else in the NBA. The man puts up Wilt Chamberlain numbers but hasn't won games like Wilt Chamberlain.
All of that adds up to a superstar who wants out and a team who wants an adequate trade-off to bow to his demands, a trade-off that no other team will meet. The Rockets need to either go to war with Harden and make him play or get him out of there as soon as possible, even if what they receive won't be par for the course when it comes to trading a former league MVP and multi-time scoring leader. That's just the way it is.