Save for a brief subplot featuring Kyrie Irving and the media, the Houston Rockets are currently the biggest source of drama in the NBA. And as the team that was a title contender just a few years ago continues to unravel publicly, we are starting to learn more about everything behind the scenes that led to this point.
One of the biggest things that's become clear over the past few weeks is just how much control James Harden has over the organization. From personnel decisions, to travel arrangements, to the ability to hop on a jet and disappear for a day of partying, Harden was able to do essentially whatever he wanted, according to a report from Tim MacMahon of ESPN.
And, for the most part, the freedom granted to Harden was worth it. After all, he's one of the best players in the league, and guarantees you a playoff berth by himself. But it also had its downsides. In particular, the Rockets' casual culture headed by Harden was ultimately responsible for the professional relationship between him and Russell Westbrook falling apart.
Westbrook didn't tolerate tardiness. With the Rockets, scheduled departure times were treated as mere suggestions by Harden and others.
"Nothing ever starts on time," a former Rockets staffer said. "The plane is always late. The bus is never on time. ... It's just an organized AAU team."
On one occasion in the Florida bubble, Harden waited to get his daily COVID-19 testing until just before the Rockets' film session was scheduled to start. When he wasn't on time, Westbrook barked, "Start the film! Start without him!" D'Antoni explained that they'd just have to start over when Harden arrived, which didn't do much to calm Westbrook.
Whether Westbrook or Harden wanted out first isn't clear, but they no longer wanted to play together, a season after the Rockets mortgaged their draft future to make it happen.
Eventually, the Rockets traded Westbrook, shipping him off to the Washington Wizards for John Wall. In the aftermath, it was reported that Harden preferred Wall, and now we have a better idea of why that was the case. Unfortunately for the Rockets, their attempt at appeasing their superstar hasn't worked.
Even with Wall back on the court and looking surprisingly close to his pre-injury self, Harden doesn't prefer Wall enough to want to stay in Houston. Though he has now finally arrived at camp, and suited up in the team's preseason game against the Spurs on Tuesday night, the 2017-18 MVP winner is still intent on getting a new start somewhere else.
To some extent, Harden's desire to leave is understandable, as the Rockets' title window has pretty clearly diminished, and the organization is beset by poor management at the top level. At the same time, Harden himself has had a big hand in the team reaching this point. He hasn't been an innocent bystander in all of this, and as a result it's not surprising that the Rockets are standing firm on making sure they get a fair return before trading him -- something that at this point is just a matter of when, not if.