Russell Westbrook wants out, James Harden is 50/50. That would be the shortest version of the past 24 hours in Rockets land. After the organization traded everything there is to trade to cater to the specific playing style of Westbrook and Harden; they don't feel like it anymore. Player empowerment, here we come!
The Athletic's Kelly Iko, Sam Amick, and Shams Charania broke the story, and it goes something like this. Westbrook is not happy with the team's culture and level of accountability, has shared those sentiments with the organization for a while now,. After Morey and D'Antoni left, he has no confidence they can improve. Westbrook would also like to “join a team where he can have a role similar to his prior, floor-general role in Oklahoma City.”
Harden is a bit more complicated. The Athletic crew reports Harden is committed to the Rockets and is “locked in for the season.” ESPN's Kendrick Perkins says Harden hasn't answered calls from ownership and management for weeks and is also on the fence. Tim MacMahon has reported that both Harden and Westbrook “have expressed concerns about uncertainty of Rockets’ immediate future.”
When it comes to the Rockets, Zach Lowe said they are calm and convinced this would blow over. The organization is going forward with the conviction both Harden, and Westbrook will be on the roster when the season starts. Lowe did point out all this work until James Harden walks into the GM's office and explicitly says he wants out - which seems like a real possibility.
Culture and Accountability
When talking about culture and level of accountability, the first problem Westbrook named, simple deduction, leads us to one person - James Harden. The Athletic specifically names a locker room moment in January after a home loss to Portland. Westbrook spoke up, calling out everyone starting with himself.
“When it came to Harden, however, he wasn’t as receptive to criticism as other teammates, sources said.”
Kelly Iko, Sam Amick, and Shams Charania, The Athletic
This is a known theme with James Harden - it's never his fault. When Kevin McHale called him out on his defensive effort, Harden called him a clown and praised himself. McHale made a simple point. If you want guys to sacrifice as much as they do on offense in Houston, you have to do something on defense.
It’s hard to have a lot of credibility when you don’t play good defense. It’s hard to say “Let’s get stops” if people are looking at you saying, “please stay in front of somebody.”
Kevin McHale, ESPN
The Athletic piece elaborates on almost everyone's frustration on the Rockets - Tucker, Ariza, Rivers, House, and CP3 - with the amount of catering to Harden on offense, which is then not followed up with accountability on defense and for results. If everyone waits in the corner while you cook for 20 seconds, it can't never be your fault. Here's a story that describes Harden's accountability level.
In another instance, Rivers was barked at by Harden after the former MVP missed a free throw and blamed Rivers — who was standing up by the bench — for distracting him.
Kelly Iko, Sam Amick, and Shams Charania, The Athletic
The other part of Westbrook's explanation is laughable. Westbrook knew what he was getting into when the trade happened. There was no illusion he would be able to play the same way he did in OKC after KD left, and Westbrook himself said he was OK with that. In the end, both said they were past individual accolades and are all about winning the title.
Westbrook: For me and James, it's about one thing: the championship. Individually we've accomplished more than anybody else. I think for us, there's only going to be one thing that puts us in the conversation [with the greats].
Harden: Individually we've accomplished so much, broken so many records that are going to last forever. We're not worried about the individual accomplishments. We want to do whatever it takes to win games. You know what I'm saying? Not necessarily me throwing 40 up or him getting a triple-double. Like, shit, that don't matter. But right now we got so many guys that are out that we gotta pick up the slack. And once we get a full roster, we don't have to do as much.
Actions speak louder than words. While both Harden and Westbrook constantly say they don't want to be as ball-dominant as they are and can't wait to share the ball more, everything on the court says otherwise. The Rockets reduced their offense to a Harden 1-on-1 game with four guys nervously waiting for a catch-and-shoot.
After Westbrook joined, his lack of outside shooting and stubborn persistence to take those shots anyway forced them to trade away Capela just to make things work. We now see everyone in the locker room hated the style of play and wanted more opportunities.
The fact Westbrook thinks he was a floor general in OKC speaks to his illusions as well. After KD left, OKC did everything they had to to get Westbrook to sign an extension with them. For crying out loud, Steven Adams had a ban on rebounds, so Westbrook could average a triple-double!
Just because you made all the decisions doesn't mean you were a floor general. Anyway, I thought Westbrook was past individual accomplishments after he “ accomplished more than anybody else” If he is all about winning a title, there are years of proof that him being a floor general leads to early playoff exits, not rings.
I don't want to leave the impression Harden and Westbrook are the only problems here. For three years, Fertita said he is willing to pay the luxury tax, and for three years the Rockets did moves that arguably made them a weaker team just to avoid the tax. Fertita didn't want to pay D'Antoni and obviously meddled with Morey's work as well - trading for Westbrook was his decision, not Morey's. Complaining about Harden and Westbrook to Donald Trump on national TV didn't help as well.
Harden and Westbrook have more than enough reason to doubt organizational leadership and commitment to win the title. The fact Fertita's company has been hit extremely hard by COVID only makes things worse when projecting his willingness to spend.
Every contract is tradeable, but at what price? Westbrook has three years and $132 million remaining on his deal - a $47 million player option in '22/'23 when Westbrook will be 33 years old. The Rockets would have to add value to ship him out, and the problem is they already traded all their assets to get him to Houston. OKC holds their '24 and '24 first-round pick, and the right to swap first-rounders in '21 and '25
Attaching any good player would make them worse, and Harden wouldn't be too happy with that. If they don't make it work with Westbrook and Harden, we could se a total rebuild. Stay tuned.