The final score of Tuesday night’s game between the Lakers and the Rockets belied how much Los Angeles dominated Houston.
LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Co. took a 35-14 advantage at the end of the first quarter and led by no less than 30 points in the third on their way to a 117-100 victory. The Rockets sat on their bench in despair. The Lakers jumped out of their seats to celebrate the moment James threw a 3-point corner and turned to his bench while the ball was still in the air.
So when Harden got to the podium after the loss, his general demeanor and tone didn’t shock anyone. Houston has lost four of its last five games (3-6 overall, 14th in the Western Conference), and Harden is averaging just 17.4 points and shooting 37.8% from the field during that time.
“[We’re] just not good enough, ”said Harden. Obviously, the chemistry, the talent, just everything. And it was clear, like I said, the last few games. They were just, from the start of the game, just aggressive. Veteran team, obviously, championship team, one of the best teams we have in this league. “
The big surprise came when Harden, who has been at the center of trade reports, rumors and speculation since November, followed up on the comments by saying aloud the quiet part.
“I love this city. I literally did everything I could,” said Harden. “I mean, this situation is crazy. It’s something that I don’t think can be fixed. Thank you.”
And with that he left.
Harden has given the Rockets a lot. Since joining the team in 2012, Harden has scored more than 18,000 points and led Houston to eight consecutive playoff spots, including Western Conference final appearances in 2015 and 2018. He’s been eight times. All-Star and former MVP. He’s not just one of the NBA’s top scorers – he’s an entire offensive system.
But here’s the problem: Harden didn’t do all he could.
He does not have show up to training camp on time. He has flouted the league’s COVID-19 protocols by partying without a mask in several cities. He forced Stephen Silas to answer questions about their status rather than his first campaign as an NBA head coach. He’s nowhere near being in playing form. He doesn’t seem interested in trying to bond with his teammates, especially Rockets guard John Wall.
“I think it was a little difficult,” Wall said of his relationship with Harden. “I can’t lie about it. I don’t think that’s the best it can be, to be honest. That’s all I could really say.”
Houston bears some responsibility in this situation. The culture of the Rockets was, as a former staff member put it ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, “Anything James wants.” Superstars still hold a fair amount of power and influence in their organizations, but Houston has tipped the scales too far.
It’s also a good reason why Harden shouldn’t act that way. The Rockets went out of their way to welcome him, sacking coach Kevin McHale and trading Dwight Howard and Chris Paul because Harden reportedly pushed for those moves. Houston is simply asking the 31-year-old to be a professional as he seeks a reasonable trading package.
If Harden had made it to training camp in a timely manner and showcased his talent to start the season, he wouldn’t have just done the right thing for the Rockets. Trade contenders may have been more eager to pull the trigger after seeing a motivated Harden consistently drop more than 30 points on his opponents. The asking price would have increased. It would be much closer to his goal of leaving Houston. He just hurts himself.
Harden and the Rockets seem to have reached a breaking point, but things were not to end that way. He didn’t have to be that ugly. Despite what Harden says, he could have done more.