With the Warriors severely depleted heading into next season, it stands to reason that the Houston Rockets are as well-positioned as any other team to take advantage and end the Warriors’ five-year Finals run. After all, they’ve been the only Western Conference team to seriously push Golden State, and they have the sort of battle-tested formula that the retooled Lakers haven’t yet developed. However, as a report from ESPN’s Tim MacMahon makes abundantly clear, the Rockets organization is experiencing turmoil. “Too much damn turmoil,” in fact.
One “high-ranking” Rockets source summed it up for MacMahon: “There’s some hard feelings right now everywhere.” That starts with stars Chris Paul and James Harden. Paul’s play declined this past season, and as he increasingly tried to slow the offense down and run set plays, Harden reportedly became more and more frustrated with him. When this led to “tense exchanges” during the Rockets’ season-ending loss, Paul went out of his way to avoid the traditional postgame press conference with Harden.
Paul’s incessant jabbering also wore thin with Harden, according to MacMahon. He apparently continued to pester Harden all season long, about little details of his game, the team’s style of play, and Harden’s unwillingness to move off the ball. Harden snapped after the Rockets’ season ended, telling Paul “he didn’t always know best and had talked too much.”
“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.’”
The tension between the two can’t easily be resolved by trading Paul either, as he’s still owed $124 million over the remaining three years of his contract. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who has reportedly complained about that contract to team staffers as well as rival executives, is the central figure in MacMahon’s story, and his leadership of the team in the two years since he paid an NBA-record $2.2 billion comes off as uneven at best. Fertitta raised a full two thirds ($1.4 billion) of the money for the purchase from selling bonds, and he also assumed $175 million in debt and received a $275 million loan from previous owner Leslie Alexander.
Questions about Fertitta’s willingness to invest in the team naturally sprouted up when details of the purchase emerged, though he was clear with MacMahon that he’s willing to dip into the luxury tax, just not the repeater tax. He can say what he wants, but the Rockets inarguably cut costs last year, opting to take on minimum salary players instead of using the mid-level exception to replace Trevor Ariza. GM Daryl Morey also snuck under the tax at the last second when he dumped Brandon Knight and James Ennis at the trade deadline.
According to MacMahon, Fertitta’s stubborn refusal to pay up is also at the root of discord between management and head coach Mike D’Antoni, who only has one year left on his contract. Negotiations on an extension broke down in late May—shortly after Fertitta publicly raised questions about D’Antoni’s age and willingness to keep coaching—and Fertitta revealed in a press conference that he offered D’Antoni a $5 million base salary.
However, D’Antoni’s agent clarified that the offer was not actually for $5 million (which would be below the market rate for an established veteran coach such as D’Antoni), since it would be cut in half if D’Antoni was fired or if the Rockets failed to make the playoffs. Fertitta met with D’Antoni in West Virginia earlier this month, and though he says he offered more incentives in the deal and dropped the buyout language, his unwillingness to raise D’Antoni’s base salary rankled D’Antoni’s agent Warren LeGarie. “I have not heard from them since that trip to visit Mike,” LeGarie says. “Mike is prepared to coach out his contract.”
The front office also let the bulk of D’Antoni’s staff go after last season, and assistants are reportedly unwilling to commit to the team while D’Antoni’s status is so unsettled. And so, the Rockets will head into the first season of Western Conference upheaval with a confused and shorthanded coaching staff and a pair of stars growing increasingly disgruntled with each other. Harden is good enough that he could win a championship for the Rockets next season in spite of all this, but he’ll have to wade through more organizational chaos than ever before to do so.
Morey responded to the story this morning on a Houston radio show, and chalked up the tension within the organization to competitiveness. “I’m frustrated, our top players are frustrated, Mike D’Antoni is frustrated. We want to take the last step and be the champion and I think it’s good that there is tension in the sense that we all want to win.”