Rockets staffers who want to know what Tilman Fertitta is thinking make a point of tuning in to Stephen A. Smith on ESPN. They suspect Stephen A., who has often had Fertitta as a guest (and fawns over him more than anyone else in the media) is Fertitta’s mouthpiece. On February 6, Stephen A. sent strong signals that A) he was close enough to Fertitta to speak for him, and B) Fertitta had little confidence in D’Antoni and Morey.
Russell Westbrook flew from Los Angeles where he lives with a multi-generational family and, sources say, he took the pandemic very seriously. Evidently, he arrived passing every test. But there was a problem: In Texas, the protocols were nothing like as stringent. Restaurants and most businesses were open for indoor business, for much of the Spring bars were too. Masks weren’t ubiquitous, protocols not as rigorous. Sources say Westbrook told the team he was disappointed in their efforts to keep the team COVID free.
The virus caused him to miss weeks of training camp and he went on to have a sub-par playoffs. Sources say that Westbrook’s trust in the organization would never recover.
What House hadn’t counted on, was that the NBA hotels at Disney were wired up with cameras and sensors. Before long, sources say, it was undeniable that House, himself, had broken the rules. And it was House who had tried, clumsily, to cover his tracks by blaming a teammate. House didn’t play again in the bubble. The Rockets ended their season with four straight losses and more than a little anger. A few weeks later, a TrueHoop source saw House and Harden shooting around. House tried to greet Harden. Harden refused to even acknowledge him.
Another source told me many players see it as an affront that House is still on the team and in training camp right now.
That’s the theme of the Rockets. Pessimism. One source said “they might end up as the worst team in the league.” Another made a joke about the Rockets falling off the map—which, get it?—would prove that Kyrie Irving had been right when he said the world was flat. No one can imagine a free agent wanting to play there. It’s hard to find anyone who expects great things.
Harden wanted Tyronn Lue to be his coach in Houston. Sources say Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta did not — he wanted Jeff Van Gundy — and the compromise was Stephen Silas. The point here is, Harden wanted to play for Lue, who is now the Clippers’ coach. He, like a seemingly vast majority of the NBA, spends at least part of his offseasons in Los Angeles, and would probably be open to extending his stay there. He also gives the Clippers something they honestly do not have, a dynamic, scoring ball handler.
Early on in the Rockets’ coaching search, management asked for Harden’s input, and Silas, the son of former NBA player and coach Paul Silas, was not among Harden’s top choices, the person told USA TODAY.
Most NBA teams function like monarchies, with all the palace intrigue of The Crown. Various figures jostle and backstab in the hunt for the billionaire’s attention. By the end of the process, to many Rockets’ staffers, it became clear that Brown and Stone had entered Fertitta’s good graces, which is no small thing.
Soon, the same was true of Morey. Key NBA business partners in China grew irate over a tweet from Morey in support of protestors in Hong Kong. There was immense business pressure to fire Morey immediately—the fallout was said to cost the league hundreds of millions in lost revenue. Within the Rockets, there were—TrueHoop sources say—discussions about terminating Morey for cause.
Much has happened to erode employees’ trust in the organization, including signs of belt-tightening. Fertitta earned a certain reputation with the staff years ago when he made them stay in his casino hotel in old Vegas for summer league, while most teams—and a few select executives like Stone and Brown—stayed in high-end hotels on the strip.
Salman Ali: According to @Adrian Wojnarowski, the Rockets still want to get James Harden into training camp with John Wall. Says Houston wants to avoid fining and suspending Harden. pic.twitter.com/GXFlITNXDx
The Rockets were definitely expecting Harden to report over the weekend and get to work (after going through league COVID-19 protocol to be cleared). They were surprised by this just like everyone else.
And for anyone wondering if Harden might have told team officials that he has no plans to wear a Rockets jersey this season — or, perhaps, ever again — sources say that’s not the case. There has been no such declaration, and the plan remains for him to suit up for the Rockets this season.
As for the prospects of him being traded, sources say the Rockets’ demands remain unchanged even after these past few days: An All-Star/All-NBA level player in return, as well as a treasure trove of other assets (young prospects, first-round draft picks, etc.). But as of Monday afternoon, sources say, the trade market wasn’t responding to these demands in the kind of way that would inspire a move.
Sources: These are unprecedented times for all involved, but there are rules and regulations surrounding this season for a very serious reason. Yet while Harden is clearly in violation of team rules in terms of reporting, it’s not clear as yet if his choices will result in discipline from either the Rockets or the NBA. “You’d like to get through it holistically,” one Rockets source said.
Sources: There’s some small sense here from the Rockets that this is James being James. He’s a known life-of-the-party type guy who — in non-pandemic times — was known to jet-set in pursuit of a good time only to hurry back to Houston while finding a way to perform at an MVP level. Yet while this is clearly different, his absence does not appear to have been packaged with a clear message attached.
There is significant confusion about what, if anything, he is trying to accomplish by staying away that goes beyond the messages already being sent. As for rival executives who are closely monitoring the situation, there’s confusion, and plenty of intrigue, there too.
Silas was then asked about Wall’s aforementioned interaction with Harden and what it might mean. “The only relationship that I have with James is the fact that he was one of the people who, in the interview process, recommended that I get the job. So that’s the relationship that I have. I assume that the relationship (Harden) has with John goes a lot further down the road, so for that communication to happen doesn’t surprise me and we’ll see when he gets here.”
The Rockets likely don't want the situation to escalate at this point as it would involve the union. "I'll tell you this, Mr. MacMahon," said Zach Lowe. "I have already heard from, I don't know, three, four people out of the blue today who don't work for the Rockets but work for the other 29 teams saying 'the league has to step in and do something about this. This is not okay.' "This is going to become the latest referendum on player empowerment and when does it go too far? I think it's a nuanced and fascinating topic. But it's already spiraling out of control."
House spoke Wednesday at Toyota Center, where he and other players are starting training camp activities for the upcoming 2020-21 season. In a virtual media availability session, House said the following: I’d like to start off by apologizing to my team, the organization, and the owner for the mishap that happened in the bubble. I’m focused. It’s behind me. It’s in the past. New year, new season. I’m learning, and I’m looking forward to growing and expanding. I’d like to deeply apologize to the fans, also. If you felt I let you down, sincere apologies from me, Danuel House Jr., to everyone.
Ben DuBose: Eric Gordon on the whether Danuel House Jr. needs to rebuild trust in the locker room: "No. He just needs to play basketball. ... He's just got to come out and play. I wouldn't say that he needs to worry about anything."
"The Rockets really want to make James Harden a Rocket for life... They want to try to find a way to rebuild this relationship. If they are gonna move him, they want a mountain in return ie. assets, players, picks." - ESPN's @wojespn .
Longtime NBA reporter Ric Bucher went on “The Odd Couple” podcast with Chris Broussard and Rob Parker and shared an interesting tidbit about the discord in Houston. According to Bucher, there is a “revolt” going on, and it’s directly related to Fertitta supporting President Trump. “I immediately thought this was Daryl Morey leaving, and Mike D’Antoni leaving, and Russell Westbrook and James Harden going ‘No offense to Stephen Silas or Rafael Stone, but we don’t want a starter kit, we’re playing for a championship,'” Bucher said on the podcast. “But what I heard is — and we know how much politics and political position had to do with the boycott and protests during the (NBA) bubble — I’m hearing that Tilman Fertitta’s strong Republican support and donations is one of the things that is contributing to this dissatisfaction, and those two [Westbrook and Harden] are not the only ones to want out of Houston. Lesser players are of the same mind. There is a revolt here because they look at Fertitta as a guy who supports the current president.”
Ramona Shelburne on Russell Westbrook: I thought he was trying to get to some good teams. That was that was the initial Intel I had. And then I had a couple more conversations and I turned around on a completely like, just it sounds like he and James didn't get along. That whole partnership didn't work. And he wants to go and be the man again. That's just the vibe that I get.
In a conversation on ESPN’s The Jump, veteran NBA insider Zach Lowe said this of the current situation between the Rockets and their stars: From what I’ve heard today, the Rockets are trying to remain calm. There’s nothing imminent. They think they can repair whatever needs to be repaired, and enter next season with both of these guys on the team, and hopefully get off to a strong start.
But I’ve got news for them. The ball’s not in their court. The ball is in James Harden’s court, more than anyone else’s. The moment he walks in there and says ‘Hey, we gave it a shot, I’ve had enough,’ is the moment the whole situation blows up. We haven’t reached that point yet.
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.
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
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.