When James Harden was traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Houston Rockets in 2012, he immediately ascended from fun Sixth Man of the Year to legitimate House-Daryl-Morey-Built-is-Rapidly-Collapsing superstar. Over the following eight years, general manager Daryl Morey's plan was simple: do everything in his power to maximize Harden's strengths. Morey loves statistical anomalies, and Harden's ability to get buckets was unlike anything we'd ever seen in modern basketball. Harden was the center of the solar system around which all other pieces revolved.
It worked, to an extent; the Rockets spent those years as one of the best teams in the league and regular championship contenders. But they never could take the final steps and reach the pinnacle of basketball, never once making an NBA Finals appearance. Morey's efforts were ultimately for naught as he stepped down after this year's early playoff exit and fled to Philadelphia. Now the house he so carefully constructed is on shaky foundation.
Yesterday morning brought the news that Harden and fellow pound-the-rock star Russell Westbrook were concerned about the Rockets' direction and if they could realistically compete for a title in the near future. By evening, everything blew up. Westbrook requested a trade. Kendrick Perkins said Harden wasn't answering calls from ownership, but Shams Charania later reported Harden is "locked in" for the upcoming season. Most notably, a big insider article from The Athletic exposed some substantial issues from the most important players on the roster other than the two superstars. Some excerpts:
"P.J. Tucker, the undeniable glue of the team, has been irate over his contract situation all season long, sources said. Tucker, who signed for around $8 million a season back in 2017, has seen other ‘Three-and-D’ wings around the league receive paydays in less important situations than a key starter for a contender and believes he is worthy of a raise, sources said. Tucker, sources said, has stated his intent to finish his career as a Rocket for a long time but felt insulted by Houston’s decision to delay extension discussions and wait until after the Feb. 6 trade deadline to guarantee his 2020-21 salary."
"Eric Gordon, who won Sixth Man of the Year in 2017, endured a difficult season from an injury standpoint, but was also not pleased with how his role and importance had diminished since the 2016-17 season, sources said."
"[Danuel] House was another player who wasn’t pleased with his usage and involvement in the offense and has verbally challenged D’Antoni, Harden and Westbrook this season, sources said. His January outburst in a road win against the Hawks was the first instance where House publicly lost his cool in that manner but this wasn’t an isolated incident, sources said."
"At times, [Austin] Rivers was unhappy with his inconsistent playing time and utilization, sources said. In one instance, Rivers went on an expletive-laden tirade following a game where D’Antoni called for him to be substituted, only to change his mind and insert new signing Demarre Carroll. In another instance, Rivers was barked at by Harden after the former MVP missed a free throw and blamed Rivers — who was standing up by the bench — for distracting him."
"A large chunk of the angst, however, stems from a lack of accountability, sources said. During the January locker room meeting following a home loss to Portland, Westbrook, who was leading the meeting, went around the room indicating what was wrong and what each player needed to do to fix the losing streak, starting with himself, sources said. When it came to Harden, however, he wasn’t as receptive to criticism as other teammates, sources said."
Morey was the one who put this all together, but without him, it's falling apart. There were very few leaks of this magnitude while he was in charge. Everything was more or less kept in-house. The Harden notes, especially, are interesting. They don't exactly paint him in the best of lights and the previous circumstances where Houston had a messy divorce with a running mate of Harden's (Chris Paul and Dwight Howard) did not bring this kind of unwanted attention.
The purpose of an architect is that the building can still stand when they're gone, but the situation in Houston is apparently too delicate for that. Such is the cost of building so aggressively around one player. It's not hard to understand why there's a "lack of accountability" that bothers Westbrook. Harden is the sun. Everything revolved around him for nearly a decade, and everybody in the organization knew it. But winning heals most wounds. Unfortunately, winning is no longer a guarantee. Thus, the shingles start to slide off and the wood rots.
Putting aside house metaphors because I am not a home owner, this is heading south very quickly. Westbrook wanting out is one thing, but it doesn't seem like Rivers is going to want to come back while Tucker and Gordon feel like they're being disrespected in either usage or money. Those are the three most important non-Harden players if Westbrook does leave. There are ways to figure it all out, but none of them are easy or likely to succeed.
Morey abandoned ship at what appears to be the right time. Now everyone is trying to follow him.