By Terrance Turner
Dec. 23, 2020 (Updated Jan. 13, 2021)
The Houston Rockets were supposed to begin their NBA season at 7:00 pm tonight (Dec. 23), playing the Oklahoma City Thunder in Houston’s Toyota Center. But tonight’s game has been postponed in accordance with the team’s Health and Safety Protocols. The NBA released a statement saying that three of the Rockets have tested positive (or inconclusive) for COVID-19. Four others are quarantined due to contact tracing. Additionally, Rockets star James Harden is unavailable due to a violation of Health and Safety Protocols.
Two days after reportedly hurling a basketball at a teammate during practice, Rockets superstar James Harden is now unable to play. ESPN reporter Tim McMahon tweeted earlier today: “Rockets are working with NBA office to review video of James Harden at a strip club. If the video circulating on social media is verified to be recent, it is a violation of league’s COVID protocols, which could put Harden’s availability for tonight’s opener in jeopardy.”
Harden responded to the report on Instagram, writing (in part): “I went to show love to my homegirl at her event (not a strip club) because she is becoming a boss and putting her people in position of success and now it’s a problem. Everyday it’s something different.” McMahon responded by quoting the tweet, adding: “By doing so, he violates the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols, which prohibit players from going to bars, lounges or clubs or social events with more than 15 people.”
Meanwhile, fellow Rockets John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins may also be ineligible for tonight’s game due to contract tracing. This is despite the fact that Wall, Cousins, and Harden have all tested negative for COVID-19. ESPN reporter Ramona Shelburne adds: “James Harden tested negative for Covid-19 on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, league source tells ESPN. The league is still reviewing his situation and eligibility for tonight’s game.” So Harden’s night at the club might cost him a spot on the starting roster tonight.
The club in question appears to be very near Toyota Center, where the Rockets will play in tonight’s home opener. The Houston Chronicle adds: “The venue was listed as private, but several Instagram users tagged The Velvet Room on Main, located near downtown about a mile from Toyota Center.” This isn’t the first time Harden’s partying has posed an issue: he missed practice on Dec. 6 because he was in Las Vegas, apparently at a nightclub. Just days before, Harden was seen maskless in Atlanta, celebrating the birthday of rapper Lil’ Baby. Harden gifted the “Emotionally Scarred” rapper with a Prada bag, filled with Honey Buns, bands of cash, and a Richard Mille. “He got me a Prada bag, ’cause he Prada me,” Lil’ Baby said at the time.
This is far from the only issue between Harden and the Rockets, though. Harden has requested a trade, and he skirted questions about his future when he spoke to reporters this week. But the writing is on the wall: Harden is visibly unhappy in Houston, and he and the Rockets appear headed for an ugly divorce. But how did we get here?
To hear McMahon tell it, the seeds of trouble had been planted years before, with a Rockets culture that often catered to its star. In fact, one former staffer described the Houston Rockets’ culture thus: “Whatever James wants.”
McMahon’s article asserts that Harden calls the shots on both the playing roster and coaching staff. He also exercised considerable sway on travel and playing schedules, too. If the Rockets had two or three days between games, Harden would likely call for an off day and charter a private jet to party in Las Vegas or another city. He always gets an excused absence from practice after the All-Star break for that very reason.
“If they have multiple days off, everybody knows: James is going to fly somewhere else and party,” a member of last season’s coaching staff told McMahon. “But he’s going to come back and have a 50-point triple-double, so they’re OK with it.” Indeed, Harden had his third triple-double in six games back in January 2019. His 43-point performance led to a dominant Rockets win — one of 53 wins in the 2018-2019 season. The previous year had been even better.
Powered by Harden’s brilliant performances, the Houston Rockets won a franchise-record 65 games during the 2017-18 season. Harden was named league MVP, per ESPN. The Rockets jumped out to a 3-2 lead in the Conference Finals. But thanks to 27 missed three-pointers — and Chris Paul’s raggedy hamstrings — the Rockets lost the last two games of the series in their home stadium! That loss to the Warriors marked the beginning of the end for the Paul-Harden era in Houston.
McMahon reports that the relationship soured leading up to the summer of 2019. Paul reportedly grew frustrated that Harden would disengage from the offense whenever the ball wasn’t in his hands. “Harden quickly tired of Paul barking about his concerns, which included lobbying coach Mike D’Antoni to implement more structure and movement,” writes McMahon. Things deteriorated further when the Rockets lost in the playoffs to the Warriors.
In June 2019, Yahoo! Sports’ Vincent Goodwill reported that the relationship had become “unsalvageable”: “Paul went to Rockets management and demanded a trade, and Harden issued a “him or me” edict following the Rockets’ second-round loss to the Golden State Warriors, sources said. The backcourt mates went nearly two months without speaking to each other during the season, sources said, creating a tenuous environment for teammates and everyone involved with the franchise.” Harden denied the report, saying: “Me and Chris had constant communication, and we’re good.”
Yet Paul was gone a month later. The Rockets were reportedly willing to go another season with its unhappy stars…until Russell Westbrook became available. Harden pushed hard for a deal, saying he’d demand a trade if Houston didn’t make it happen. The Rockets agreed, trading Paul for two draft picks and some swap options. Harden was soon reunited with Westbrook, his OKC teammate (and childhood friend).
Initially, things worked beautifully. In a February game vs. the Boston Celtics, Westbrook and Harden combined for 62 points. That capped a month where they were ranked second and third, respectively, in NBA scoring. Westbrook averaged about 33 points during the month, while Harden averaged 31.9. They’re the first pair of teammates in NBA history to average 30 points and 5 rebounds apiece.
Everything seemed to be working — and then the pandemic happened. COVID-19 forced the league to suspend its season in March 2020. Over the spring and early summer, a plan was formed to return to play. The NBA resumed play on July 30 in the “NBA Bubble” — the sprawling ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Florida. There, the Rockets lost in the conference semifinals to the Los Angeles Lakers (the eventual NBA Champions).
On Nov. 11, a bombshell report in The Athletic revealed that Rockets star Russell Westbrook wanted out of Houston. Why? “Westbrook has informed team officials that he has been uneasy about the team’ accountability and culture,” three Athletic reporters wrote. “Westbrook, sources say, has made it known for quite some time that he would like to see significant changes to the Rockets culture. Specifically, his desire for more team-wide accountability, discipline, and culture have been the focus of talks with team officials.”
ESPN’s Tim McMahon put it more bluntly: “Houston’s casual culture appalled Westbrook. In Oklahoma City, despite the fact that he enjoyed the same sort of superstar privileges as Harden has had in Houston, the Thunder operated with the discipline of a military unit under Westbrook’s watch. The Rockets were a stark contrast,” McMahon wrote on Dec. 16. “With the Rockets, scheduled departure times were treated as mere suggestions by Harden and others.”
“Nothing ever starts on time,” a former Rockets staffer told McMahon. “The plane is always late. The bus is never on time…it’s just an organized AAU team.” But that laissez-faire attitude didn’t sit well with Westbrook. McMahon asserts: “Westbrook didn’t tolerate tardiness.” Case in point: on one occasion in “the bubble” in Florida, Harden waited to undergo testing for COVID-19 until just before the Rockets began watching film. Westbrook grew impatient: “Start the film!” he barked. “Start without him!” Then-coach Mike D’Antoni explained that they’d just have to start the film over when Harden arrived, but Westbrook was still peeved. But that was the way it was…
Once the pandemic began and “the bubble” was filled, Houston’s bubble burst. After yet another player loss (this time to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers), the Rockets were at a crossroads. Westbrook wanted out. Within days of the bombshell Athletic story about his quest for accountability, Westbrook requested a trade. The Rockets acquiesced. They traded Westbrook to the Washington Wizards in exchange for John Wall and a lottery pick in early December.
Now, the may have to do the same with James Harden.
UPDATE: After back-to-back losses to the Lakers — including last night’s 117-100 Lakers win — it may be the end of the road for James Harden in Houston. In a Zoom postgame interview last night, Harden was blunt about the 3-6 Rockets: “We’re just not good enough,” Harden said. “Chemistry, talent-wise, everything. It was clear these last few games from the beginning of the game. [The Lakers] were just aggressive. A veteran team, obviously, a championship team. One of the best teams we have in this league.”
Harden also expressed a belief that the situation may be unsalvageable. “I love this city. I’ve literally done everything I can,” Harden said. “This situation is crazy. It’s something I don’t think can be fixed. Thanks.” With that, Harden rose and left the room.
One of Harden’s teammates had a lot to say about that. When asked how he felt about Harden’s comments, newly acquired Rocket DeMarcus Cousins was blunt: “Obviously, it’s disrespectful. But everybody has a right to their opinion. You know? We feel a certain type of way about some of his actions. You know, this is — this is the nasty part of the business that kind of gets swept under the rug. You deal with these type of things, and you know, when guys are in positions of being, you know, franchise players and whatever that may be, it’s usually sometimes a nasty breakup. Like I said, that’s all part of the business,” Cousins continued.
A reporter asked Cousins: “As someone who signed here as a free agent, do you feel betrayed? Do you feel like it was unfair to you to have chosen to sign here […] and then have the star player want to leave?” Cousins was equally forthright in his answers.
“Me, personally, I don’t feel betrayed at all. My interest was playing with John Wall to be brutally honest,” Cousins said. “With that being said, the disrespect started way before any interview — just the approach to training camp, showing up the way he did, the antics off the court. I mean, the disrespect started way before, so this isn’t something that all of a sudden happened,” Cousins said. “Like I said this is the nasty part of the business, Cousins said. “It is what it is.”
ESPN’s Tim McMahon asked: “At this point, is there any way that you guys can play with James harden again?” Cousins answered: “I don’t really think that’s a question for us. I think that’s a question for him: will he ever be willing to play with us again? I don’t know. Quite honestly, don’t care.” Follow-up question: “And when you talk about disrespect, what specifically are you talking about?” McMahon asked.
“I just feel like there’s a way about handling business,” Cousins responded. “He can feel however he wants to feel about the organization or whatever his current situation is. But the other 14 guys in the locker room have done nothing to him. So for us to be on the receiving end of some of the disrespectful comments and antics, it’s completely unfair to us.”
“I wasn’t disrespectful to anyone,” Harden now claims. “I just made a comment that the team as a whole wasn’t good enough to compete for a title.” But those comments came days after The Athletic reported that at least two teams are interested in acquiring Harden. The Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers both made offers to the Rockets, per reporters Shams Charania and Sam Amick. But only one of those teams would prevail.
BREAKING (Jan. 13, 2021): The Houston Rockets have traded Harden to the Brooklyn Nets in a massive blockbuster deal. The Rockets will receive four first-round picks and four pick swaps, all of which will come from the Nets — except for a 2022 Milwaukee pick currently owned by Cleveland. Houston will also receive Caris LeVert, Dante Exum and Rodions Kurucs, according to CBS Sports.
UPDATE (Feb. 20, 2021): Five weeks to the day after Harden was traded, reports have surfaced that former teammate DeMarcus Cousins is also headed out of Houston. Athletic writer Shams Charania says Cousins and the team plan to part ways in coming days. “Houston wants to go smaller, younger in frontcourt when Christian Wood returns and this allows Cousins to find an opportunity elsewhere,” Charania wrote on Twitter.
This begs the question: will Cousins return to Los Angeles, where he (technically) won a ring with the Lakers earlier this year? (Cousins suffered a season-ending knee injury after getting signed, but he was still on the roster when the Lakers won — meaning he is technically still eligible for a ring.) Will he head back to LA?