January 21, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

The Rockets and Warriors are in new territory, and it’s not good

James Harden repeated the words like he could change the outcome if he kept saying it. Just two quarters after a season of work, the difference between happiness and this.

“One half of basketball,” he said. “… It’s frustrating.”

His team was close — curse-the-basketball-gods close, blame-the-refs close.

The Houston Rockets had just lost Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals to the Golden State Warriors, the two teams then so much better than anyone else in the NBA that most basketball people viewed the series as the de facto NBA Finals.

Yet in a matter of two seasons, injuries, trades, distrust and defections have both teams on the outside of serious contention, with the Rockets facing full-on annihilation. The Lakers are the class of the conference, the Clippers and stalwarts like Denver and Utah not far behind.

Harden’s hands are on the detonation button, and he’s certainly made it seem like he’s been repeatedly pressing it.

He asked for a trade (it hasn’t happened), no-showed the start of training camp to party in Atlanta and Las Vegas, where he was photographed in crowds without a mask. He finally made his preseason debut Tuesday, and in his first news conference of the season Wednesday, he made zero effort to ease any concerns.

Houston empowered him, putting the offense almost entirely in his hands with coach Mike D’Antoni. General manager Daryl Morey surrounded him with role players waiting patiently for Harden to make his move.

They paired him with Dwight Howard, and when that didn’t work, they dealt for Chris Paul. And when Paul tired of Harden and vice versa, they dealt for Russell Westbrook. And with it clear that those two wouldn’t work, Houston sent Westbrook to Washington for John Wall.

D’Antoni and Morey are gone, now in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, respectively, and Harden has the Rockets staring down a rebuild even though they have him under contract for three more seasons, including a $47-million player option in 2022-23.

“Right now, I’m just focused on being here,” Harden said Wednesday.

That focus, though, hasn’t included in-depth conversations with new Rockets coach Stephen Silas and new general manager Rafael Stone, Harden said.

It has set the stage for a massive cloud to hang over Houston’s season until there’s resolution, and the Rockets have given no signals that they’re willing to move Harden for substandard value.

“The best thing for me is to really concentrate on how can I maximize his talents on the floor? How can I put him in a place where he can be great and help everybody else be great?” Silas said. “That kind of simplifies it for me. If I delve into other types of things, it’ll draw away from what’s important, which is how this team is playing. If we exactly knew kind of where his head was at, I think it would be good for everybody. But we’re dealing with reality.”

Houston’s reality is this: It’s entering another retooling with a separated roster. Former star veterans like Wall and DeMarcus Cousins are fighting to regain their careers while up-and-coming players like Christian Wood try to make their names. In the middle is Harden, a player who says his focus is in Houston but who clearly wants out.

No team in the conference might have a wider range of outcomes.

The Warriors’ reality has been altered dramatically since the 2019 NBA Finals, when Kevin Durant ruptured an Achilles tendon before leaving for Brooklyn and Klay Thompson tore a knee ligament. The following season turned into a reset even more pronounced when Stephen Curry suffered a broken hand four games into the season.

Armed with the No. 2 pick, the Warriors were in a prime spot to try to join the Lakers and the Clippers at the top of the West, but in the moments before the draft, Thompson tore an Achilles tendon, throwing them back into a spiral.

Unlike Houston, their culture isn’t under fire. It’s more a matter of manpower and aging, with evaluators around the NBA asking questions about Draymond Green’s effectiveness after a forgettable 2019-20 season.

Optimists believe that Green will be more engaged with more at stake, though Thompson’s injury lowers the ceiling the Warriors can reach. Still, much more than Houston, the Warriors are together, giving them some hope as they try to regain their status at the top of the conference.

“We’ve pretty much seen everything, so I don’t think anything is going to faze us,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “That’s a good thing. I think this is going to be a very interesting season. I think we’re going to be much better two or three months from now than we are next Tuesday. Given that our potential, that our growth curve is pretty steep, that leaves a lot of room for some tough nights.

“It’s going to be a climb and there are going to be some nights where we slip back. It’s going to take some resilience for sure.”

As the Western Conference sorts itself out with teams such as Phoenix, New Orleans and Memphis banging on the postseason door, some teams are going to be pushed out of the way.

It wasn’t too long ago when Houston and Golden State were at the top of the NBA, the unquestioned best in the West.

Now, heading into a season full of uncertainty, their spots in the standings are the shakiest.