Houston, you don’t have a problem anymore. The trade happened; it finally happened.
As great as James Harden appeared to be with the Houston Rockets, there’s almost no reconciling in the NBA when someone files for divorce. Harden’s legacy with the Rockets will be remembered in scoring championships courtesy of many uninteresting isolation points; playoff shortcomings due to Chris Paul’s hamstring, as well as his own performances; and chasing away every co-star he had while souring on a situation he created.
Harden expanded his trade list because he had no real leverage but still managed to force his way to the place he wanted to be all along, reunited with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn. (Kyrie Irving, though? Who knows.)
When Harden was teamed with Dwight Howard, it didn’t work, then Howard was gone from the organization. After falling short with Paul in consecutive seasons, Harden uttered the now infamous, “I know what we need to do,” and a trade for old-friend and fellow Californian Russell Westbrook was made that summer. Finally, just months ago, Westbrook was moved for John Wall, whom Harden allegedly preferred over his buddy, in a last-ditch acquisition to appease their disgruntled frontman.
Then last night, the final shot to the head.
“The situation’s crazy. It’s something I don’t think can be fixed. So, yeah, thanks,” Harden said, following an embarrassing loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
And if we know John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, they will not allow themselves to be bitched at by anyone, especially if it’s a person they don’t appear to totally respect, so they responded.
“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. The disrespect started way before.”
Added Wall, “At the end of the day, a lot of guys here want to compete at a high level.
“Like I told everybody tonight, and like I told the guys before, when the one through 15 guys all are on the same page, they’re committed, they know their role, and they know what they want to do … and that’s to win, we all will be fine. But when you have certain guys in the mix that don’t want to buy in all as one, it’s gonna be hard to do anything.”
Pretty damning of an alleged top-five player, no?
People fundamentally forget that basketball isn’t just about basketball. This isn’t NBA2K. This is real life; managing personalities, building chemistry with co-workers, curating healthy habits, leading responsibly, giving a damn, and holding yourself to a standard that requires accountability. Harden demonstrated none of that on his way out of Houston, a team led by first-year head coach Stephen Silas, and a team evidently filled with players who want to do nothing but compete. Wall has no plans of being a head coach in the future, but it matters that teammates who have worked with him have thought so highly of his character, even while injured, that the topic is even up for consideration. It means you’re a leader, and for Houston, the first they’ve had since … Westbrook? Paul? P.J. Tucker? Notice who we’re not mentioning here?
Harden had Houston’s organizational structure, roster construction, playing style, and culture all curated to him for the past eight-plus years, and it did nearly result in an NBA Finals appearance, but will we look back and determine these achievements were obtained in spite of him? Did other leaders keep the team together? Were they saved by Daryl Morey’s roster construction? These are questions we’ll be asking as we gain more separation from this era. But if Harden was as beneficial as many lauded him to be, we shouldn’t have those questions.
In the present day, the Rockets land with a clusterfuck of first-round picks and a collection of players highlighted by former All-Star Victor Oladipo, who has quietly been playing his best basketball since his January 2019 injury.
Oladipo fills the lofty void at shooting guard to run alongside Wall, an emerging Christian Wood, and the remaining Rockets roster. The Rockets are just 3-6, but Wood is putting forth All-Star level production, recording 22.6 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, 1.6 blocks per contest while shooting 53 percent from the floor. Wall is at 18.6 points and 5.1 assists, but we’ll presumably see his usual production return in Harden’s absence. The team keeps Tucker and Eric Gordon, among others, while adding once-promising role players in Dante Exum and Rodions Kurucs as potential reclamation projects. (At least for now.)
And they add Oladipo, who is hungry, in a contract year, and is up to 20.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 1.7 steals per game. He was the Indiana Pacers’ third-leading scorer behind Malcolm Brogdon and Domatas Sabonis. (They’ll be fun as hell with Caris LeVert, by the way.)
If Oladipo buys in, the Rockets will be competitive, which is all the team seems to desire in this now post-Harden era. And VO better, his next contract hinges on it.