wise man once said: It takes a special kind of person to have power, and not abuse it. This applies anywhere and in any industry, but in the world of professional basketball, when one is given too much power without achieving the ultimate goal, things can grow sour at a moments notice rather quickly.
That's how long James Harden has been with the Houston Rockets, and the culture that was created by the organization has been summed up in 3 words:
"Whatever James wants".
Harden wants out of Houston, and he made that abundantly clear, despite the team getting John Wall from the Washington Wizards, and big man Demarcus Cousins, who was with the LA Lakers before he got hurt.
Part of the Blame Goes to the Rockets
The Rockets definitely have blame for establishing a culture of preferential treatment for the NBA superstar, and overtime, Harden got used to it. The "Yes sir" culture that has been created has led to the Rockets bending over backwards for Harden at virtually every whim, and this was an open secret to many throughout the league.
According to a piece that came from ESPN earlier today, Harden virtually had the team on the tips of his fingers. Whenever the Rockets were in Harden's favorite cities, and there wasn't a game the following day, the team would stay an extra night or day to accommodate Harden going out to a party in LA, Phoenix among other cities. As one assistant coach put it:
"If they have multiple days off, everybody knows: James is going to fly somewhere and party. But he's going to come back and have a 50 point triple-double, so they're ok with it".
As another former staffer put it:
"We knew who the boss in Houston was. That's just part of what the deal was when you go to Houston. The players, coaches, GM's, owners, all know".
Every offseason prior to this most recent one, Harden would give a slight ultimatum to the Rocket's front office, saying that he wanted a team good enough to contend, and the Rockets complied as much as they could.
Harden had a say in roster/personnel decisions, and was the driving force behind the departure of former Rockets head coach Kevin McHale, who was fired after just making the Western Conference finals, and after the first 11 games the next season.
Harden's most recent co-star last season, Russell Westbrook, didn't like the casual culture that was created by the organization, and according to sources, this led to Harden arriving late to things such as film sessions, which rubbed Westbrook who is a no nonsense type of guy the wrong way. The Rockets never addressed Harden's actions, and this led to things escalating for the worse.
The Rockets were absolutely complicit as they allowed Harden to get whatever he desired, and after the Rockets got pummeled by the Lakers in the second round of the NBA bubble which led to the departure of former Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey and former coach Mike D'Antoni, Harden's annual discussion of roster improvement turned into him demanding a trade from the team.
Where Harden Gets Blame
Let me be very clear: James Harden is one of the greatest offensive scorers the NBA has ever seen. His ability to draw fouls, and his shooting, coupled with his nifty moves to the basket with his dominant left hand make him a rare talent. Outside of an NBA championship, Harden has won virtually every individual award out there, and is one of the most durable superstars in the league, often playing through injuries and toughening it out while putting up video game numbers.
What's better is that from a team perspective, in the 8 years that the former league MVP has been a Rocket, the team has made the playoffs every single year. While his style of play of isolation basketball wasn't appealing to some, the results also led to two appearances in the Western Conference Finals during those 8 seasons.
However, with all that said, the ultimate goal was never achieved, as the Rockets never at any point during Harden's tenure made the NBA finals, and while Harden had absolutely incredible regular seasons, the playoffs often left a lot to be desired.
In 2015, during a close out game against the Golden State Warriors, Harden went 2/11 from the field, 0/3 from the three point range, and a whopping 12 turnovers, which was a league record.
In 2017, the Rockets were against the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs, and game 6 took place in Houston, which was an elimination game for the Rockets. The circumstances surrounding that game is what makes it shocking: The Spurs were without both Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, and it resulted in the Rockets losing by 39 points on their home floor. Harden, who had just come off a dazzling regular season, ended that season and that game with a measly 10 points on 2/11 shooting with 6 turnovers and 6 fouls. It was an all time pathetic performance from a superstar, and several hall of fame players at the time accused Harden of quitting.
In 2018, the Rockets had the Golden State Warriors right where they wanted them, up 3 games to 2 in the Western Conference finals. The Warriors were fully loaded with Kevin Durant as well, making them arguably the best team to be ever assembled in the NBA. When Chris Paul got hurt with a hamstring injury, all the Rockets had to do was win 1 more game while the Warriors had to win 2.
And unfortunately, Harden did not play up to par during those last 2 games. He shot 6/25 combined from three point range in both of those games, and was a minus 32. To be fair, this was against an all time great team, but Harden's previous track record of having subpar games in the playoffs didn't help his case.
These are just a few examples.
From a team chemistry standpoint, the Rockets went through 4 different head coaches, and Harden also alienated his former co-stars Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and now Russell Westbrook.
Chris Paul was without question Harden's best teammate as they enjoyed the most success than Howard and Westbrook, but even Paul's main complaint according to sources was that whenever an offensive possession didn't feature him, he would stand on the perimeter, rarely moving without the basketball, which stagnated the offense.
Lastly, Harden decided it was a good idea to delay his arrival to the Rocket's training camp recently by partying with rapper Lil Baby and irresponsibly not wearing a mask.
It is clear that despite Harden being a generational talent and an offensive machine, he did not deserve the preferential treatment that was given to him.
At the end of the day, player empowerment is present now more than ever before in the NBA. It makes perfect sense to keep your superstar happy, but to what extent? If a player wants perks that someone like Harden had during his time with the Rockets, they have to have the championship hardware to go along with it.
With two years left on Harden's deal, it is unlikely the Rockets can convince him to stay with John Wall and Demarcus Cousins.
There has to be a balanced medium, as you don't want the pendulum swinging the other way where front offices have more control, as this would also be a nightmare. This can easily be a lesson for other teams that are watching the drama in Houston, and the lesson is clear: You’ve got to put a limit on what you’ll give because people don’t have a limit on what they’ll take.