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.
Howard is frustrated because he believes Harden doesn't respect him enough. Howard texts former teammates asking what can be done to solve the problems. That same poor dynamic between Harden and Howard, and the inconsistent play of others has hurt Bickerstaff, who took over 11 games into the season when Alexander fired McHale. "The team was not responding to Kevin," Morey said at the time of the firing. "There is no time in the West."
As the Rockets rushed from the Oracle Arena visitor's locker room and a long, frustrating season, James Harden looked to the off-season pledging to return a better player. "Just a tough year. Tough year," Harden said. "I think every player, every great player goes through it. It's an opportunity to get better. I'll come back as a better basketball player. "It was a frustrating year. A lot of ups. A lot of downs. I have to be better next year."
Maybe his silence said everything, but Howard too was truthful about the chemistry. “It didn’t go the way we wanted to go,” the 30-year-old center said. “We had a lot of ups and downs and I’m sure all of us are going to take some time to reflect on what we can do to better ourselves.”
Adrian Wojnarowski: JB Bickerstaff had impossible job: Interim where two stars hated each other -- and brought it onto court. He can be a good NBA head coach.
“That’s going to happen,” Terry said regarding distractions. “I’ve been around this thing a long time. You will be faced with all types of adversities and how you come through those is a sign of the type of team you have. Our team was just not strong enough mentally to get through those adversities and learn. A lesson for [Harden] as a star of a team, you have to deal with certain issues and still be able to be mentally tough to bring your level of play up with your team and get them to where you want them to go. It happens.”
February 5, 2023 | 7:31 pm EST Update
Adam Spolane: Rockets list Garrison Mathews questionable to play against the Kings tomorrow night with left big toe soreness, and Kevin Porter Jr will miss his 13th straight. No one else is on the injury report
Nets Daily: Trade will generate two trade exceptions for Nets, one of $5 million, another of $1.8 million that they can use at any point in next year. Trade also saves Joe Tsai $18.8 million in luxury taxes, dropping the bill from $108 million to $80 million barring any subsequent moves.
February 5, 2023 | 6:27 pm EST Update
Golden State Warriors PR: Warriors assign Patrick Baldwin Jr. to Santa Cruz: pic.twitter.com/FIPZkIXtwN