Storyline: Houston Rockets Turmoil?

82 rumors in this storyline

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.

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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.

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.”

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.

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 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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.”

“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.”
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