Opinion: James Harden has made his point, testing a first-year Rockets GM
NBA 

All-Star James Harden wanted out of Houston as soon as the Rockets hired Stephen Silas as coach, a person familiar with the situation told USA TODAY Sports.

The person requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the Rockets situation.

The Rockets are in tumult, having lost general manager Daryl Morey to the Philadelphia 76ers and coach Mike D’Antoni to the Brooklyn Nets in an abbreviated offseason. They also traded Russell Westbrook to Washington for John Wall last week.

Now, they’re dealing with a generational superstar who wants a trade with at least two seasons remaining on his four-year, $171.1 million contract. A first-time head coach in Silas and first-time general manager in Rafael Stone are managing the fallout along with owner Tilman Fertitta and executive management.

On Tuesday, Fertitta told CNBC, “James Harden, I have all the respect in the world for. James Harden wants to win a ring during his period as a basketball player. I think that’s wonderful that he’s going to do it, and hopefully he’ll do it with the Houston Rockets.”

James Harden hasn't reported to Rockets training camp as he goes through the NBA's COVID-19 testing protocols. (Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)

Harden has not practiced with the team as he clears the league’s COVID-19 testing protocols, and his absence created a disturbance. Silas called it a setback and has declined to say why he thinks Harden hasn’t been with the team.

“He’s not here, and he has a reason, but that's on him to tell whoever what the reason is,” Silas said.

Harden is in Houston – after celebrating rapper Lil Baby’s birthday in Atlanta over the weekend – and has begun COVID testing.

The disappointing finish to the 2019-20 season – a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs – has melded into a frustrating start to the 2020-21 season.

Early on in the Rockets’ coaching search, management asked for Harden’s input, and Silas, the son of former NBA player and coach Paul Silas, was not among Harden’s top choices, the person told USA TODAY.

Around the league, it was believed the Rockets sought an experienced coach to lead a team featuring Harden and Westbrook. They went with Silas, a veteran assistant who is praised for his offensive creativity.

The crumbling of this version of the Rockets – a team that won 217 games in four seasons under D’Antoni, including 65 games in 2017-18 when they reached the conference finals – began at the start of last season when Morey made his pro-Hong Kong tweet that infuriated China, resulting in several hundred millions of dollars in losses for the league.

Chinese officials wanted the Rockets to fire Morey, but they were not in a position to do so given the optics it would have presented, even if Fertitta wanted to.

D’Antoni never entertained an offer from the Rockets after they proposed a one-year extension for 2020-21 before last season. The offer, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, came with contingencies D’Antoni felt were unacceptable, including a low-ball rate if the Rockets failed to the make the playoffs. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. 

Ultimately, D’Antoni’s time ran its course, and Morey wasn’t involved in the search for a new coach even though Fertitta told CNBC that “I’m sure he’s going to pick the right coach.” After 14 years with Houston, Morey had an expiration date, too.

Fertitta is just three years into his ownership of the team, and like many new NBA owners, he’s learning how different – and perhaps more difficult – it is to run a pro sports franchise where player empowerment is significant.

This is not Silas’ fault. He wants to make it work with Harden, but that may not happen, acknowledging “trust is built day to day, and once the relationship begins, we’ll begin that process of trust."

“Obviously, there wasn’t a great start to it, but that’s the NBA. The NBA is not going to be roses every day," Silas said on a Zoom call Tuesday with reporters. 

What's next for Harden? It behooves him to report to camp and play, just as Jimmy Butler did with the Minnesota Timberwolves when he wanted out at the start of the 2018-19 season. Butler forced Minnesota’s hand, and he was traded to Philadelphia. Yes, Harden signed a contract, and he’ll honor it with Houston as long as necessary. He’s not going to lose significant money to prove a point. He wants out though. ESPN reported Harden wants a trade to a contender such as Philadelphia.

What's next for the Rockets? They could certainly keep Harden and see how it works with a roster that has talent in Wall, Eric Gordon, Christian Wood, DeMarcus Cousins, Gerald Green,P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. 

They should also search for a trade partner, just like the Timberwolves did. It doesn’t make sense to keep an unhappy player around, creating an even more detrimental situation for Silas and the team.

It’s on Stone to find the right deal that returns max value. The yield might won’t replace Harden, but it can give the Rockets necessary assets to move forward.

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