It’s been more than a month since it was first reported that Houston Rockets star James Harden turned down a two-year, $103 million extension from the team in favor of working out a trade to the Brooklyn Nets. Since then, the situation has gotten more out of hand, with Harden reporting for training camp a few days late after partying in Las Vegas, getting into an argument with a teammate at practice, and going to a strip club without a mask, which prompted an investigation and a $50,000 fine by the NBA for violating the league’s COVID-19 protocols.
It seems as if new reports are coming out concerning the 2018 MVP and the Rockets every day, with the latest being a story from The Athletic that the Boston Celtics and Portland Trail Blazers have joined the list of his preferred destinations. There have been numerous disgruntled stars who have forced their teams to make trades in recent years, especially during a time when players have been more empowered and have had more say about where they will take their talents.
Harden’s case, however, takes player empowerment a step further and is more complicated, especially with the NBA trying to complete a 72-game season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and outside the confines of the Bubble. The Rockets have discussed a possible trade with multiple teams, but so far, their trade demands for the 31-year old have not yet been met, and there is concern whether a team could actually meet their asking price.
But what the past few weeks have made clear is that Houston should move on from the eight-time All Star, a move which will benefit both parties. Here are three reasons why the Rockets must trade Harden:
1. Avoiding more present and future drama
As if their chaotic offseason wasn’t enough, the Rockets’ season opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder was also postponed after an outbreak of COVID-19 among their players. While Harden was not believed to be the cause of the outbreak, it forced the team to quarantine some of his teammates, such as new acquisitions John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, who were supposed to make their debuts for the Rockets.
The report on Harden throwing the ball at rookie teammate Jae’Sean Tate after a heated exchange during practice is surprising, especially since eight-time All Star is known more for having a laid back personality. But these reports point to a mounting frustration by the former MVP regarding his trade demand and current situation with the Rockets. With the season already underway, the best way for Houston to avoid more drama is to ship Harden to one of his preferred destinations.
It’s only been a little over a month since Harden expressed his desire to play elsewhere, but the situation has already gotten messy and has dragged into the season. There’s no telling how this distraction will impact his teammates and the team’s disposition as they look to remain contenders in a tough Western Conference, but the sooner the Rockets can move on from their star, the better it will be for their present and future.
2. Helping the Rockets move forward
By trading for Wall and signing Cousins and big man Christian Wood, new Rockets general manager Rafael Stone has made it clear that the Rockets would rather contend this season instead of rebuilding like the Thunder. A lineup featuring Harden, Wall, Cousins, Wood, plus core players like Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker still gives Houston the chance to contend in the Western Conference and reach the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season.
However, it is clear that the offseason moves made the front office aren’t enough to convince Harden to stay in Houston, which was made apparent when he declined an extension and asked to be traded to a contender. Even if they might not get their asking price for the former Sixth Man of the Year, the best trade package that the Rockets can get for Harden will still consist of a current or potential All Star, a couple of rotation players, and future draft picks.
A player like Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers, Spencer Dinwiddie of the Brooklyn Nets, or Michael Porter Jr. of the Denver Nuggets should be able to immediately help the Rockets. Those players aren’t Harden, who helped the Rockets make the playoffs for eight straight seasons, but few players are, and they will likely want to play for their new team.
3. Starting a new chapter in Harden’s career
When former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey traded for Harden eight years ago, he was fresh from a stint in the NBA Finals, but was playing under the shadow of former Thunder teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But his time in Houston proved that The Beard could be a star and can be the best player on a team.
In his time in Clutch City, Harden led the Rockets to eight seasons of at least 41 wins and two trips to the Western Conference Finals while establishing himself as one of the league’s best players. But after their loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Conference Semifinals in the 2020 Playoffs, the Rockets underwent major changes, including the system that Harden had grown accustomed to. Gone are Morey and former head coach Mike D’Antoni, replaced by Stone and a new head coach in Stephen Silas.
The team accomplished a lot with the former Arizona State Sun Devil as their star, and was one Chris Paul injury away from possibly reaching the Finals two seasons ago. However, declining his extension this offseason and requesting a trade sent a message that he wants the next chapter of his career to be with a different team, even if the Rockets made moves in the offseason to try to convince him to stay.
It’ll be hard to envision Harden wearing a different uniform other than the Rockets’ familiar red and white jerseys. But dealing the disgruntled star to a different team instead of trying to keep him not only helps Harden contend for an elusive first championship, but also helps Houston prepare for what comes next, whether it is trying to remain in contention or bottoming out and rebuilding through the draft.