With James Harden reportedly interested in joining former teammate Kevin Durant with the Brooklyn Nets, should the Houston Rockets give Harden what he wants?
2017-18 NBA MVP James Harden has become the face of the Houston Rockets franchise since joining the team in 2012. Harden and the Rockets have made eight consecutive postseason appearances, which became a league record with the Rockets’ postseason berth in 2019-20, and the Rockets have won at least 50 games in three of the last four seasons.
Harden and the Rockets fell short of defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in 2019-20, as they were upended within five games of the Western Conference Semifinals, which was followed by the departures of former general manager Daryl Morey and head coach Mike D’Antoni. Rafael Stone and Stephen Silas have been ushered in as their replacements, as the Rockets have sought to change the culture and embark on a restart in their front office.
This has reportedly led James Harden and Russell Westbrook to question the direction of the franchise, which has culminated in trade talks surrounding Westbrook. On Sunday afternoon ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Harden has considered requesting a trade, which would send him to the Brooklyn Nets to team up with his former teammate Kevin Durant.
Wojnarowski stated, “The idea of playing together again came up during Harden and Durant’s offseason workouts together in Los Angeles. Sources said the players talked openly about whether the combination could work and how a trade facilitating it could work.”
This is alot to unpack on multiple fronts, but it should first be noted that the Rockets would have to comply for such a deal to take effect. But should they?
Harden has certainly given the franchise his all, while having already played under three different coaches and making the All-Star team under each coach. Harden and the Rockets have also legitimately paid the price, as Harden saw former backcourt mate Chris Paul get injured during the 2018 Western Conference Finals, which was the closest they came to reaching the Finals during Harden’s time in the Space City.
Harden has also witnessed the frugality of the franchise, which has hindered him from being surrounded with a championship caliber roster, as the Rockets have seemingly always been a player (or two) away from dethroning the top seeds in the West (with 2017-18 being the exception).
But in spite of that, the Rockets essentially granted Harden his request last offseason, when they decided to trade Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook, who was Harden’s longtime childhood friend. The Rockets tweaked their entire offensive gameplan midseason to allow Westbrook the space to thrive and cancel out his inability to shoot, and the strategy was successful for Westbrook.
The 2016-17 MVP had a career-high in efficiency and nearly won the Western Conference Player of the Month in February, while also making the All-NBA team. Unfortunately for Westbrook and the Houston Rockets, he got injured before the start of the playoffs, and he never appeared to be himself when he returned.
So why make a move now as opposed to “running it back”? We tend to see much better results in the second year of a superstar player joining a new team and the 2019-20 season was an unusual one anyways, with the season being split up by more than three months, which is generally the length of the offseason.
Harden is surely tempted by playing alongside Durant, who is one of the greatest offensive talents the league has ever seen. But so is Westbrook, who Harden wanted to share the backcourt with, so shouldn’t he stick it out for at least another year? Surely Harden didn’t expect to only play with Westbrook for one season when he requested the Rockets front office to acquire him.
From the Rockets’ standpoint, they would regress immensely if they moved Harden for the Nets’ rumored package, which centers around Caris Levert, Jarrett Allen, and Spencer Dinwiddie. So why would they make a move that would set them back, just to give Harden what he wants?
Especially when they’ve been led to believe that they already gave Harden what he wanted by trading for Westbrook? And where does that leave Westbrook, as we’ve heard that the Rockets are having a difficult time finding any takers for him and his contract?
Sure, Harden has done wonderful things for the franchise; that can’t and shouldn’t be understated, as the Rockets were in the dregs of mediocrity prior to his arrival in 2012. But they shouldn’t purposely make a move that would send them back to that same place, just because Harden may have gotten a change of heart about wanting to play with Durant instead of Westbrook.
The right move for Houston Rockets general manager Rafael Stone and assistant general manager Eli Witus would be to stand pat and hold on to both players, and especially with this being their first major moves in their newly-promoted positions.