What’s most distressing about the James Harden “holdout” and demand for a trade is that new Rockets coach Stephen Silas was left to answer all questions about Harden’s absence. This is his first NBA head job and it’s one of the rare situations where a new coach is not inheriting the rubble from a franchise implosion. Houston has talent. It just acquired John Wall and signed DeMarcus Cousins.
An engaged Harden joining the club would make the Rockets different but intriguing. Harden, the former MVP who has made it clear he does not want to play in Houston any longer after general manager Daryl Morey left for Philadelphia and coach Mike D’Antoni took an assistant coaching job in Brookyn, reluctantly reported to camp and is currently doing individual workouts as he goes through COVID-19 protocols.
Harden has been the face of the Rockets for the past decade, but it hasn’t resulted in anything besides a barrage of points and playoff eliminations.
The organization has tried to pair Harden with players who could complement his immense offensive talent. He didn’t get along with Dwight Howard, who eventually got shipped to Atlanta.
Chris Paul was acquired from the Clippers, and he was supposed to get Harden the ball in the spots he likes. The combination resulted in a berth in the 2018 Western Conference finals, but a hamstring injury to Paul derailed Houston’s chance of unseating Golden State.
During the summer of 2019, the Rockets decided it was time to move Paul, and swapped $40 million contracts by acquiring Russell Westbrook. Westbrook and Harden had played together in Oklahoma City, were apparently close buddies, and were clamoring to play on the same team again.
Westbrook was an offensive mess in Houston when the season resumed after the COVID-19 break. He also didn’t like the lackadaisical practice schedule and Harden’s relaxed style and wanted out after the season ended. The Rockets made another $40 million swap by acquiring Wall and a first-round pick from the Wizards for Westbrook.
Wall said he’s talked to Harden, the two agreed that it would be great to be teammates, but Harden stayed away from the team and did a lot of partying. Harden was pictured at parties without masks and attending birthday bashes for rappers. Meanwhile, Silas was in Houston left to answer questions about why his star player hadn’t bothered to even return his calls.
“I wouldn’t say it’s his level of commitment,” Silas said. “I would say I want him to be a big part of what we’re doing and I’m excited to coach him and have him be a part of what we just had out there, with good practice. That’s what I’m looking forward to having him here and having him do.”
Harden’s move is the latest example of an NBA player using a power play to determine his fate. Anthony Davis wanted out of New Orleans and eventually procured a trade to the Lakers. Paul George said in 2018 that he wanted to be in Oklahoma City long term. The next summer he pushed for a trade to the Clippers.
A few years prior to that, Kawhi Leonard let the Spurs know he wanted out as his contract was near expiration, and the team was forced to move him to the Raptors.
Where does Harden want to go? His first choice is Philadelphia, but new GM Morey would have to unseat Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid to make the deal. Meanwhile, Morey would be handing new coach Doc Rivers a player who needs to dominate the ball and be the focal point of any offense.
Harden’s résumé has scoring titles but no championships, and how would the Philly faithful react to another Harden playoff implosion and the 76ers being stuck with his contract for another three years? Any team that acquires Harden has to understand it’s buyer beware. While he is a cinch Hall of Famer, one of the more unique players of his generation who has mastered how to draw fouls and essentially travel without it being called, Harden has long been criticized for his spotty commitment to the game while remaining committed to nightlife.
His desire to party even during a pandemic, while his teammates and other NBA players remained masked and socially distanced because it’s the only way to begin the season, is a testament to his questionable off-court decisions. Anyone who gets Harden is getting an amazing scorer on the floor and a handful off of it.
If a team is interested in Harden and has title aspirations, it has to ask itself if it’s willing to hand over the fate of its franchise to Harden. He is not a selfish player on the floor — he once led the league in assists — but his offensive style of pounding the ball until he gets his preferred shot doesn’t incorporate his teammates.
It’s stunning that one of the more prolific scorers in league history wants out of Houston and wants to play for a contender but no team has stepped up to make a deal.
Harden is expected to practice with the Rockets this coming week, but it’s understandable his teammates and the organization question his commitment. Harden is a compelling player. He should be credited for revolutionizing offensive play because of his footwork and ability to create contact while rarely being called for offensive fouls. He is a scoring machine, but he hasn’t been able to enhance his reputation for making his team better.
How long will he remain in Houston? Only GM Rafael Stone knows. The Rockets don’t have to move Harden. They could keep him and hope he enjoys his new coach, teammates, and environment. But that doesn’t seem likely. Harden is going to make this uncomfortable, if he hasn’t already.
Celtics reflect on time in bubble
The Celtics spent nearly three months in the NBA bubble in Orlando. They made a spirited run to the Eastern Conference finals, only to fall short against the Heat. Off the floor, they grew closer, save the locker room blowup after Game 2 against Miami.
Also, the players were witnesses and some were participants in the meeting that determined whether the season would resume after the Bucks boycotted their playoff game against the Magic, prompting a three-day hiatus.
We asked several Celtics what they took away from the bubble as they prepare for the 2020-21 season.
Marcus Smart: “For me, I think it was the transparency with the players, everybody working together for one common goal, especially during the bubble for the social injustice. It really shows the sides of the players that people don’t really get to see or may have a misconstrued judgment of us or biased just based off what they do see. So guys were able [to show] that side of them, the father side, the brother side, the son side. For me personally, off the court, I learned more about myself. I learned more about my teammates from being so close with them for such a long period of time.
“For most people, I think the bubble helped. And I was one of those. Mentally, I was able to get into a quiet place and everything around me kind of calmed down because my life outside of basketball … I didn’t have to worry about it. I didn’t have to worry about [family situations] as much because I’m stuck in the bubble, so I think that all of those things were seen and shown from this experience.”
Javonte Green: “I just sat back and listened like a sponge. Just listening to [Jaylen Brown] since we were together most of the time, just listening to him and how that impacted him and how much he’s so into it. I just learned a lot. A lot of NBA players are intelligent. I just feel like we’re not NBA players. We have a platform and we use that and we used the bubble as a great way to express our feelings about social injustice. The bubble was a great way to figure things out.”
Robert Williams: “I just say sometimes you’ve got to be by yourself and key in. I feel like I expanded myself in the bubble. I feel like I played a great game in the bubble. Still stuff to improve on. I just used that time to lock in and really focus on what I needed to focus on.”
Carsen Edwards: “It was a crazy experience in a way, just kind of learning from the guys around here. Learning how to use my platform and understanding the best way to go about things and to handle yourself off the court and also how to follow these guys, and whether that’s in meetings or in free time talking to them and learning from their experiences, and also kind of hearing what they have to say about going through the ups and downs of the season, and the unexpected and being able to be prepared for whatever it may be. It was a learning experience for me overall and it was a blessing to be with a team with a good group of guys. It was an experience for me where I learned a lot and able to learn from good people and able to do things in the right way.”
Jaylen Brown: “What was exciting for me to see was in the midst of all the media storms and everybody was talking about some of the meetings that we were having, I was excited to see that everybody was in one room trying to come up with a decision. I think that’s power in that, all athletes being together and trying to figure it out. That was exciting for me to see. Some bridges were built during that time and guys are looking to do things more together rather than individually, and as athletes we have to continue to back each other up. Not leave each other out to dry, even if we say the wrong thing. Being in this seat that I sit is more than about being a basketball player and entertaining people. I’ve got real responsibilities. I’ve got communities, my family, other communities, people all over the world who’s looking at us as role models. It’s about time we started carrying that with us. It’s encouraged [for players] to run away from that responsibility, and I once again would like to challenge that.”
Brown keeps focus on social justice
Jaylen Brown is working on an effort to change the name of his high school in Marietta, Ga. Joseph Wheeler was a general in the Civil War, as well as the Spanish-American War, and served in Congress as a representative of Alabama.
Brown, a 2015 graduate of Wheeler, has begun an online campaign to remove the Wheeler name from the school.
“I’ve been introduced to a bunch of young ladies who have been pushing to get that changed,” he said. “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. I think it’s time to move to the future.”
Brown said he wants to continue his crusade toward social justice and he wasn’t moved by the recent election results. Brown, one of the more poignant voices in the bubble, is far from satisfied.
“I don’t think anything has changed,” he said. “I know [Joe] Biden was just probably elected into office, but I don’t think anything has changed in terms of some of the systematic oppression that still goes on. We’ve still got to keep pushing for change, for reform or in other words push to abolish some of these laws that people get to hide behind to kill and assassinate people of color. So, in my opinion nothing has changed, but we still have to continue to push for the change we’ve been looking for.”
Brown also said he has partnered with NASA Goddard just outside Washington D.C. to reintroduce STEM education to underrepresented communities.
Finally, as a member of the National Basketball Players Association executive committee, Brown had a say in when the season was going to begin. While the union pushed back on the Dec. 22 start, it finally relented.
“It made the most sense in terms of business-wise and financially starting on Christmas Day, around that time,” he said. “I was for that in terms of what I saw on paper. Obviously, COVID is still around and still lurking in certain areas. That’s something to be aware of. I’m not sure how that’s going to necessarily work as we start to travel in certain places. Will the season be stopped? Will it continue to go on? Will there be a stay-at-home order during the season? I’m not sure.
“I didn’t have a problem with [the date]. I’m young, I really didn’t need too much time off.”
Kyrie Irving issued a statement instead of appearing on a Zoom call for Nets media day. In the statement, Irving said he was going to focus on basketball and not speak with the media. The NBA responded with fines for Irving and the Nets. It’s unclear if Irving plans to maintain his media ban for the entire season, but it’s apparent he didn’t like the negative reaction to his comments on Kevin Durant’s podcast, when he said Durant was the first teammate he’s had that he knew could also hit a winning shot. LeBron James, who played three seasons with Irving, took offense and admitted there had been upheaval in Cleveland during their time together. Irving responded by saying if he wanted to name James in particular, he would have. It’s probably best for Irving to concentrate on basketball since he’s missed most of the last two season. He will make his return to TD Garden on Christmas Day, health permitting … With camps beginning, there are still some quality players looking for work. Former Celtic Isaiah Thomas said he is 100 percent after dealing with a painful hip the past few years. It seems like the best chance for Thomas is going to be a 10-day contract, which won’t be allowed until well into the season. Other unemployed free agents include Dion Waiters, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, former lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay, Kyle O’Quinn, Andre Roberson, and Yogi Ferrell. It already was going to be a tough market for free agents because of the brief offseason and several players opting into contracts. Also, teams can add G-League players to rosters because of the uncertainty of the G-League season. The Celtics are keeping Tacko Fall and Tremont Waters on their roster going into the regular season. It will be the same rules as the bubble, where teams could hold as many as 17 players but only 13 would be active … Former Northeastern standout J.J. Barea was waived by the Mavericks on Thursday, not long after he had been re-signed for the veteran’s minimum of $2.6 million. Owner Mark Cuban had decided to give his beloved veteran one final Dallas payday. Barea, 36, wants to remain in the NBA, but it may be difficult to catch on barring injuries … And a fond farewell to former reporter Mike Shalin, a fixture at Celtics home games who died this past week. Shalin was a joy to be around and was always happy to offer advice or perspective on Boston sports.