Austin Rivers, who recently stated on “The Ringer NBA Show” that he would be declining his player option for 2020-21, also experienced a frustrating season. At times, Rivers was unhappy with his inconsistent playing time and utilization, sources said. In one instance, Rivers went on an expletive-laden tirade following a game where D’Antoni called for him to be substituted, only to change his mind and insert new signing Demarre Carroll. 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
Westbrook, sources say, has made it known for quite some time now that he would like to see significant changes to the Rockets’ culture. Specifically, his desire for more team-wide accountability, discipline and structure have been the focus of talks with team officials. Throughout the season, Westbrook was the consistent presence who kept Harden accountable and the two close friends had several verbal exchanges that sources described as “tense, but needed.”
In essence, one source said, Westbrook would like to see something closer to the Thunder culture that he helped create during his time in Oklahoma City from 2008 to 2019 as a way of making him more comfortable. The organization, in turn, has been receptive to these requests and is focused on building the sort of environment that functions better for everyone — Westbrook included.
But the removal of these key components — D’Antoni departing for an assistant coaching position in Brooklyn and Morey becoming president of basketball operations in Philadelphia — has left serious doubt in both Harden and Westbrook’s minds of an ability to sustain long-term success, sources said. Although Harden and Westbrook were kept abreast of decisions and offered input, both players are in win-now mode and have raised questions as to whether or not that same mindset is shared with the front office, sources said.
There has been an overwhelming amount of support for Silas as he prepares to coach his own team for the first time in 20 years of experience, as well as Stone’s new position as general manager. However, as it pertains to both Harden and Westbrook, there is concern about the direction the team is heading in, specifically worried that the team may prefer a rebuild sooner rather than later, sources said. With both stars still in the prime of their careers and the championship window that was once wide open now shut considerably, both have zero interest in a rebuild, sources said.
Truth be told, this Westbrook development is merely the latest challenge in what has been a trying time for the Rockets. And he’s hardly the only player who has been struggling with frustration. The pressures of winning a championship, fighting against a slew of healthy competition and their own career clocks, so to speak, resulting in a season that showed a lack of cohesion and “a mess,” as one source described it.
For starters, P.J. Tucker, the undeniable glue of the team, has been irate over his contract situation all season long, sources said. Tucker, who signed for around $8 million a season back in 2017, has seen other ‘Three-and-D’ wings around the league receive paydays in less important situations than a key starter for a contender and believes he is worthy of a raise, sources said. Tucker, sources said, has stated his intent to finish his career as a Rocket for a long time but felt insulted by Houston’s decision to delay extension discussions and wait until after the Feb. 6 trade deadline to guarantee his 2020-21 salary.
Eric Gordon, who won Sixth Man of the Year in 2017 endured a difficult season from an injury standpoint, but was also not pleased with how his role and importance had diminished since the 2016-17 season, sources said. The Rockets haven’t been consistent with how they’ve used Gordon, at times being a bonafide scoring option and other times an expensive catch-and-shoot option.
Gordon has expressed displeasure on a number of occasions, with Lucas taking the lead on keeping him focused, sources said. The question of whether Danuel House or Gordon should start has been a talking point for two seasons, although Gordon has often expressed a lack of preference with coming off the bench or starting — instead wanting his role defined and clear.
Internally, there were a number of options discussed to best optimize his skillset, with one approach being not having Gordon share the floor as much with Harden and Westbrook at the same time, sources said. This, however, would require D’Antoni reducing his staggering strategy, something that he wasn’t keen on doing, sources said.
A large chunk of the angst, however, stems from a lack of accountability, sources said. During the January locker room meeting following a home loss to Portland, Westbrook, who was leading the meeting, went around the room indicating what was wrong and what each player needed to do to fix the losing streak, starting with himself, sources said. When it came to Harden, however, he wasn’t as receptive to criticism as other teammates, sources said.
Former teammates have described the culture in Houston as problematic, sources said, highlighting a situation that caters far too much to its stars. One example cited was the case of Trevor Ariza, who left the team in 2018 in search of more money, but also more respect, sources said. The Rockets attempted to bring him back down the line but Ariza, sources said, was seeking an apology that never came. Former teammates also questioned why players like Clint Capela and Chris Paul were traded, according to sources. There have also been complaints about the team’s style of play, both from former and current players on the team, sources said. Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals was the highlight of such complaints, with the team missing 27 straight 3-pointers and not adjusting or incorporating any other offensive strategy, sources said.
As the Houston Rockets navigate an offseason of major change, a new challenge is emerging for the franchise -- the uncertainty of former MVP guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook on their futures with the team, sources tell ESPN.
In the wake of the departures of head coach Mike D'Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey, Harden and Westbrook have expressed concern about the direction of the franchise through direct conversations or discussions with their representatives and the Rockets' front office, sources said.
“There was audible shouting in the postgame locker room...I’m told Rockets players were holding each other accountable to bring better body language, bring better effort on the floor.” Our NBA Insider @ShamsCharania reports from the bubble ahead of Lakers-Rockets Game 5.
Salman Ali: James Harden on why he decided to get extra shots up post-game: "Just getting back to the basics. When you're struggling, you try to get back to the fundamentals and the basics of your shot-form. Form-shooting and things like that."
Alykhan Bijani: James Harden: "We're playing well, playing well and then (we) stop doing the things that were getting us the lead. Sooner or later, we're going to put a four-quarter game together and just build off that." #Rockets
Tim MacMahon: Thunder 112, Rockets 107 (final). Houston blows a 17-point lead in the final 15:20 of the Rockets’ fourth straight loss and fifth in six games. OKC scored 41 points in the fourth quarter.
Tim MacMahon: Mike D’Antoni: “Right now, we’re in a period where if something goes bad, it goes bad. When it rains, it pours, and it’s pouring.”
After a rocky summer in which their [James Harden and Chris Paul's] prickly inner dynamics were revealed to the outside world and certainly played a part in the Westbrook move, sources say that a familiar debate – how much they focus on offense vs. the need to take more of a prideful approach to defense – has been a point of early frustration among the players yet again and a topic of great focus.
In a later interview with ESPN, Mr Fertitta insisted that his relationship with Mr Morey remained strong. "I have the best general manager in the league," Mr Fertitta told ESPN. "Everything is fine with Daryl and me. We got a huge backlash, and I wanted to make clear that (the organisation) has no (political) position. We're here to play basketball and not to offend anybody."
Difference of opinions on Twitter within the Houston Rockets: after a message of support for the cause of Hong Kong by team GM Daryl Morey, Rockets’owner Tilman Fertitta has distanced himself and the franchise on the issue, claiming that “Morey does NOT speak for the Houston Rockets” and referencing to the team presence in Japan for the NBA preseason.
Tilman Fertitta: Listen.... @dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization. @espn https://twitter.com/dmorey/status/1180312072027947008
Olgun Uluc: Interesting situation going on with Rockets GM, Daryl Morey, right now: - Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong. - Rockets owner, Tilman Fertitta, quickly distanced the team from the tweet, which has a big Chinese fanbase. - Morey’s latest tweet has been ratioed by Chinese users. pic.twitter.com/5pEHPudZ58
Paul and Harden have been communicating since the season ended and had a positive conversation on Father’s Day, sources said. According to sources close to Paul and Harden, the two players must continue working toward fixing any issues and accomplish the goals they both have set out: Winning a championship in Houston.
Tim MacMahon: Houston player to me recently: “I hope they don’t panic. I hope they don’t make drastic moves. We are right there. We’ve just got to figure out some things, fine tune some things, but we are right there. We don’t need to change much. It’s not the time to f---ing panic.”
Chris runs hot, too… PJ Tucker: Yeah, Chris is a hothead. But Chris wants to win. Chris might be the most competitive person I’ve ever been around in my life, and I’ve known him my whole life (Tucker and Paul grew up playing against each other on the North Carolina AAU circuit). Like, period. Chris wants to fucking win. Period. Chris wants to win. I don’t care. Chris wants to win.
Does the way he’s wired still help the group? PJ Tucker: I don’t see how it can’t (help the group). I can’t be around somebody who wants to win like that and not want to win. So if you can’t do that, then this might not be where you need to be, because that’s the stuff you need to be able to win. I wasn’t (sweating the recent reports). I ain’t talking to nobody, because I know. I live it every day. There’s nobody on our team together more than me and James and Chris, so why would I sweat it?
Rumors and speculation could not touch Chris Paul now — if they ever could — not here, not on a day like this. The Rockets guard, surrounded by his family in a break in the Go Hoop Day celebrations he co-founded, never seemed more comfortable, more in control, talking about his vision for the event and recognized by the City of Los Angeles for driving it. He had briefly addressed his place with the Rockets and future between portions of the clinics held on Sunday at Crete Academy. But there was one more point to make.
“I never asked for a trade,” Paul said. “I never demanded a trade.” He did not seem angry about the reports that he had, in part because he had nearly completed the day’s events on a near-perfect Southern California afternoon. He had stepped away for a place on nearby picnic tables, surrounded by his large family, munching on a plant-based burger from one of the event’s sponsors, Beyond Meat, as Paul completed his 11th day since becoming a vegan.
By then, the day’s celebration of basketball might have made it difficult to get too worked up over the off-season rumor mill. Paul was much more effusive about that cause, but he did briefly address speculation that he wants to leave the Rockets and that there is a rift with star backcourt mate James Harden. “I’ll be in Houston,” Paul said. “I’m happy about that. I’m very happy about that. I’m good.”
The report cited Paul’s frustration with the offense and a push for more ball movement and off-ball actions, a la Golden State. But Paul isn’t the only one. Several members of the team expressed similar opinions throughout the year and into the offseason, including Eric Gordon’s frustration after a blowout loss in Utah, and continuing with Austin Rivers’ appearance recently on First Take. Per team sources, those complaints have been heard and management has discussed a system that involves less isolation basketball and more ball movement heading into next season. Speeding the game up and looking for easier baskets was also brought up in conversations, per a team source.
For what it’s worth, Houston doesn’t see this as a real problem. One source harkened back to the Dwight Howard days, for a real broken and dysfunctional relationship. “There will always be tension when you’re trying to get shit right,” cited one team source. “Every aspect of basketball gets debated at some point, and the way we lost sucked. “We’ve had players (in the past) who didn’t care about anything other than themselves and wanted everyone else to shore them up. We don’t see (Harden/Paul tension) as a big deal.”
“I think they’re close,” Danuel House told The Athletic. “They talk all the time, they do a lot together and they joke all the time. But they work differently.” “I felt like there wasn’t any tension, me personally being there. But being a younger guy and sticking to my role and trying to lock in, I can’t really focus on what happened or what’s been said or done.”
Mark Berman: #Rockets owner @Tilman Fertitta on James Harden & Chris Paul: "These are 2 very competitive athletes & all they want to do is win a championship together for the Houston Rockets. We're excited to have them back and we look forward to using this opportunity to try to be successful"
Jonathan Feigen: Daryl Morey gave an example: Said he had Harden and Paul on face time with him as they discussed 50 free agents together. Said he has spoken to both players quite a few times since the season with no indications either has changed their stance.
Jonathan Feigen: A thoroughly exasperated Daryl Morey said Chris Paul and his reps have never asked to trade him and he will be on Rockets next season. Said he and Harden do not have issues with one another and that he has spoken to both often this off-season about free agency evaluations, plans.
Alykhan Bijani: Chris Paul denies Harden/Paul rumors on Instagram: “🤷🏾♂️ Damn! That’s news to me...” #Rockets
Alykhan Bijani: Daryl Morey says Chris Paul and James Harden are NOT AVAILABLE IN TRADES. “We spent a lot of time putting together two superstars. We’re trying to add a third, going backwards from that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
The backcourt mates went nearly two months without speaking to each other during the season, sources said, creating a tenuous environment for teammates and everyone involved with the franchise. Harden hasn’t returned Paul’s repeated attempts at communicating this offseason, sources said, after a year in which the pair repeatedly got under each other’s skin with petty acts in practices and games.
“There’s no respect at all, on either side,” a source told Yahoo Sports. “They need to get away from one another. Chris doesn’t respect James’ standing in the league, and James doesn’t respect the work Chris has put in to this point.” Paul’s injury-related absences and grating personality have annoyed Harden, sources said.
Harden’s ball-dominant style and unwillingness to give others like Paul space to operate have grated on Paul, leading to the nine-time All-Star issuing his trade demand to Rockets general manager Daryl Morey after the season. Sources said Paul would curse at head coach Mike D’Antoni about the offense bogging down after Harden would ask to come into the game to join the second unit, with Paul heading to the bench. “It can’t be fixed,” another league source told Yahoo Sports about the Harden-Paul partnership.
SportsTalk 790: .@SeanUnfiltered: "Does Chris Paul want to be traded?" @dmorey: "No, Chris Paul does not want to be traded." @SeanUnfiltered: "Will you field calls on Chris Paul?" @dmorey: "No, we want to add one more star to this team."
The prevailing belief in Houston -- and hope, certainly -- is that the tension between the Rockets' stars isn't atypical for the NBA and can be managed. And that's a must, given the unlikelihood of getting equal basketball value for the 34-year-old Paul in a trade, considering he is owed $124 million over the final three years of his contract.
According to sources, Paul was also frustrated by what he perceived as Harden's tendency to ignore unglamorous details that impact winning -- such as moving when he gives up the ball to help spacing -- and wasn't shy about expressing those concerns. "It's always a little contentious when you have two alpha dogs," a team source says. "Ask the Golden State Warriors if they've ever had problems between their stars.
It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D'Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby -- or demand -- to check back into the game.
Harden, by nature, tends to avoid conflict but was pushed hard enough to snap back at Paul from time to time. That's what happened during the Rockets' elimination loss, when, team sources said, Harden told Paul he didn't always know best and had talked too much. "Chris has a personality where he just doesn't let anything go," a team source says. "He just keeps pestering and pestering and pestering and pestering. Sometimes James has had enough -- and not just him. That's what makes [Paul] a winner and also what keeps him from being a big-time winner. He's got to temper that."
Fertitta has grumbled about Paul's contract, expressing regrets to Rockets staffers and even in front of rival executives, according to league sources.
Fertitta failed to mention the buyout language that guaranteed D'Antoni only half of his base salary if the Rockets fired him before the extension began. That was the primary sticking point for D'Antoni, who hoped for a commitment of two more seasons beyond this contract and never seriously considered a half-hearted offer of one more year. Five days later, Fertitta boarded his private jet along with Morey and flew to West Virginia to smooth things over with D'Antoni. The Rockets' executives returned to Houston believing they had a handshake deal. "I feel very good about it, and I've always felt good," Fertitta told ESPN the following week. "I'm disappointed that it got talked about in the press, and I'm disappointed I responded in the press."
As an olive branch, Fertitta offered $2 million in incentives tied to playoff advancement in 2019-20, the remaining season on D'Antoni's current contract, if they worked out an extension. He also agreed to remove the buyout language, claiming LeGarie hadn't made it clear it was considered so problematic. D'Antoni told them the reworked offer sounded good, but they needed to iron out the details with LeGarie. "I have not heard from them since that trip to visit Mike," LeGarie says. "Mike is prepared to coach out his contract." LeGarie insists that a second year and a higher base salary are musts to sign an extension with the Rockets. He was annoyed D'Antoni, a client for more than three decades, came across as agreeable to a lesser proposal without consulting him.
D'Antoni, who acknowledges he's nonconfrontational to a fault, has told friends he's willing to deal with the indignity of lame-duck status because he believes the Rockets have a legitimate chance to win a championship. All parties involved admit the situation has played out much messier than necessary, but neither LeGarie nor Fertitta seem willing to budge.
That will be particularly challenging in the case of finding a replacement for former associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik, a defensive guru who opted to retire right before training camp last fall in part because he felt he wasn't receiving enough respect from the Rockets' front office, according to league sources.
"When I even hear a mention of trying to save money on a bus or something else stupid, I'm just f---ing furious, because it's so far from the truth. OK?" Fertitta says, his voice rising. "Did I say I don't want to be in the f---ing tax one out of three years, I don't want to get in the repeater tax? Absolutely. OK, but I would have spent whatever this past year if [Morey] would have said, 'I can get this player, and this guy's going to help us win a championship.'"
Tim MacMahon: James Harden as Rockets wrap up a winless road trip: "We all go through tough times in life. You just have to figure your way out of it. Obviously, we want to be perfect, we want things to go great and sometimes they don't and you hit a speed bump. We've got to figure it out."
Where do they go for a solution? The reserved Gordon hasn’t been the happiest of campers this season, but even he couldn’t hold back any longer when I caught up with him as he was leaving Vivent Arena. “I’m just not having fun man,” Gordon told The Athletic. “I’m just not. This sucks. Even the times where I have good games. We’re just not using some guys the right way. Are we gonna make the right sacrifices? Do we have the right attitude? “Last year was the best year I’ve ever had being a part of a team,” he added. “We just never had a bad moment. If we ever had a bad game as a team, you knew the next game we would blow somebody out. It didn’t matter who it was.”
Marc Stein: More from the pregame media sessions in Houston: Rockets GM Daryl Morey said "a lot" of the team's struggles to open the season are "on me" and Coach Mike D'Antoni acknowledged that management is "exploring all options" in the wake of a 4-7 start
Jenny Dial Creech: Morey said players have come up to him and D’Antoni and said ‘I need to play better.’ #Rockets
With the Rockets slumping, with losses in seven of nine games, but also with a record that is the fourth-best in the NBA, they said they have to maintain a mix of urgency and confidence. "That's what we're fighting with right now," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We're fighting as coaches, is what we're doing good enough? Is it tired legs, injuries and we need to hang in there, or do we need to change something? It's a fine balance. I can't say a coach always knows. I can tell you afterwards. We'll try to play with a swagger and confidence."
"We know we have the ability and the talent in the group we have (healthy) to win," forward Ryan Anderson said. "We just need to come together and battle harder, play harder. I want to look myself in the mirror regardless of how many looks I get, if shots fall or not, I want to play harder. We just have to clear our heads and put all this, this little stretch, behind us. We know we can play so much better."
Mark Berman: Pat Beverley: "That's BS. What happened tonight was BS....We have to play better if we're talking about winning championships." #Rockets pic.twitter.com/7oTqDO4lTA
Houston Rockets management repeatedly pushed for Clint Capela to get more playing time at the expense of Dwight Howard last season, sources told ESPN, adding to the disharmony that played a prominent role in the team's disappointing 2015-16 campaign.
Former Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff resisted complying with the wishes of general manager Daryl Morey and owner Leslie Alexander regarding a drastic reduction in Howard's playing time. Team sources said Alexander never participated in the meetings with Morey and Bickerstaff but fully supported the general manager's plan to prioritize Capela's development.
Sources said Howard learned of management's attempts to cut his minutes in midseason and shared a mutual interest with the Rockets front office to move him before the trade deadline. The Rockets shopped Howard, according to sources, but no deal came close to materializing largely due to Houston's ambitious asking price: an immediate major contributor and either a promising developmental project or future first-round pick.
Brewer also was asked about the relationship between Harden and Dwight Howard. “It wasn’t as bad as people say it was,” said Brewer. “Superstars are going to have their disagreements and different things, but it was just a bad year. I’m not going to say it was either one of their faults. It wasn’t those guys not getting along. It was all of us. None of us played our best basketball and we got knocked out of the first round.”
Corey Brewer was on ESPN Face to Face with Hannah Storm on Thursday, and he spoke about the Rockets hiring of Mike D’Antoni. “He’s going to bring a lot of energy,” said Brewer of Houston’s new coach. “That’s what we need. We need some energy back here in Houston. It was a bad year this year. Expectations were high and we ended up playing really bad but I think Coach D’Antoni is going to come in and change all that.”
Calvin Watkins: Jason Terry said there was too much turmoil and he didn't do a better job of handling it. @Sirius XM NBA
That likely will be only the start. Morey disputed the depiction of the Rockets' chemistry problems, saying that they were no greater than is typical when teams play badly and that the chemistry was no worse this season than it was good with the same players last season. But anyone privy to all those team meetings could describe dysfunction that will have to be addressed. Next season's coach will have to demand or inspire that kind of change and likely will have to convince Morey, Rockets owner Leslie Alexander and CEO Tad Brown that he can turn the Rockets into a team built to win in the postseason.
But he disputed the notion that he does not value chemistry or that it was as much of an issue this season as many, including some of his players, have said. "I think it's hugely important," Morey said. "I don't remember articles about how our chemistry was great last year. I don't remember articles last year that said how great our guys were together. That's a label people throw on a team when it's not going well. The reality is we didn't have enough guys playing together and playing well. Last year, we had a lot of guys playing well and playing together. It's the same group of guys. They had good chemistry. They just didn't play well.
"It's the convenient thing to say the chemistry is bad. We lost games. Everybody is trying to figure out why we lost games. The reality is our defense was a lot worse. That was guys not playing as well as we needed them to play."
It's no big surprise since this has often been a season of dysfunction. It starts with Harden and Howard, the team's two stars. They have tried to be friends -- Harden picked up Howard's tab for dinner in New York on his birthday. During dinner in Phoenix at the All-Star break, the two discussed their on-court issues.
Howard feels he's a star and should be respected in the locker room. Howard, known to be playful with media members, was distant over the last two months of the regular season. He was largely frozen out of the offense despite coaches and players saying he needs the ball.
Mark Berman: Jason Terry asked why James Harden and Dwight Howard didn't click this year: "Could be a contrast in styles. I think those two have to be put in a system where they have to learn to play together. I just think they're two different styles. They just couldn't co-exist to have success this year. It worked last year, but this year it was just different for some reason."
Marc Stein: As for Dwight Howard, don't forget that it's his option -- not the team's -- whether he stays or goes this summer and Howard does love the city of Houston. But the overwhelming expectation around the league is that Dwight will bypass his $23.3 million option for next season and opt for free agency in July. As one team source told our own Calvin Watkins this week, Howard's relationship with James Harden is "cordially bad." Meaning that the players aren't openly in battle but the disconnect between them is an undeniable and pressing issue.
January 26, 2023 | 7:28 pm EST Update
Dallas Mavericks PR: Luka Dončić has been named as a starter for the 72nd @NBA All-Star Game. Dončić joins Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Isiah Thomas and Anthony Davis as the only players to earn four All-Star nods before their 24th birthday. pic.twitter.com/9imH3qQf9f
January 26, 2023 | 6:56 pm EST Update
The mere notion that Banchero could potentially hit the rookie wall was quickly shot down by teammates Wendell Carter Jr. and Gary Harris. The start by Banchero is something Harris has never seen. “He is not no normal rookie. He ain’t normal at all. He is hungry. He wants to be great. He is willing to learn. He wants to be coached. He is taking it in all on the fly and he is 20 years old so this is a lot for him. In halfway through the season, I’ve never seen anybody come into the league like he has come into the league with just how locked in, focused and how mature he is. He already is special. He is special.”