As the Houston Rockets navigate an offseason of major changes, the franchise faces a new challenge – former MVP guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook’s uncertainty about their future with the team, sources told ESPN.
Following the departure of head coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey, Harden and Westbrook have raised concerns about the direction of the franchise in face-to-face meetings or conversations with their representatives and the Rockets front office.
Missile owner Tilman Fertitta, who was recently promoted to general manager Rafael Stone, and recently hired head coach Stephen Silas have emphasized that the franchise will continue to seek out a competitor while the two perennial all-stars are in their prime. However, concerns expressed by Harden and Westbrook that Houston’s window as a competitor might close, the organization has feared the superstars’ commitment to sticking with the Rockets could falter.
Although at this point neither player requested a trade, this scenario has become a plausible possibility.
Harden, 31, has been an All-Star for all eight seasons since arriving in Houston. He won MVPs in 2017/18, finished in the top three four times in the past six years and took the last three NBA titles. He is owed $ 131.5 million for the three remaining seasons of his peak contract, including a player option of $ 46.9 million in 2022-23.
Westbrook, who turns 32 on Thursday, also owes $ 131.5 million over the next three seasons and has a player option of $ 46.7 million in 2022-23. He won the MVP in 2016-17 and made his ninth All-Star appearance last season. Westbrook played through rust and injury after falling back from a strained right quadriceps in the first round of the playoffs.
Both stars were consulted during the Rockets’ coaching search and were on board to hire Silas.
Harden, who has publicly stated several times that he hopes to play the rest of his career in Houston, has expressed a similar urgency in the past offseasons to improve the Rockets’ chances of a league title. He is still involved in discussions with Houston’s front office about potential staff moves this off-season, sources said.
The Rockets have aggressively hunted titles during Harden’s tenure by pairing him three times with another perennial all-star – first signing Dwight Howard as free agent in 2013, then trading for Chris Paul in the 2017 off-season, and finally Paul and a package exchanged first-round picks for Westbrook last summer.
The Rockets reached the Western Conference finals with Howard in 2015 and Paul in 2018, but those partnerships with Harden ended soon after, in part due to tension between personalities and basketball philosophy, particularly regarding Harden’s preference to aggressively rely on isolation.
Harden pushed to make the deal for Westbrook, his childhood friend in Los Angeles and former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate, a deal that exhausted Houston’s design skills. The Rockets owe the Thunder their picks for the first round in 2024 and 2026 (top 4 protected), and Oklahoma City has top 10 protected swap rights with Houston in 2021 and 2025.
The Rockets also have no selection for the first round in this year’s NBA draft, as they gave it up along with center Clint Capela in the four-team deal that brought Robert Covington to Houston last season. Houston has limited flexibility to improve its roster as the Rockets crack down on the luxury tax. Fertitta has repeatedly stated that he is willing to pay the tax, but the franchise has avoided it in the three seasons since Fertitta bought the team.
“We will continue to be extremely aggressive,” said Stone on Thursday in a virtual press conference to introduce Silas. “We’re going to shoot for it. Whether we get there or not, I don’t know, but I can guarantee we will shoot for it and I’m really looking forward to it.”
D’Antoni, who set a franchise record of 0.682 percent in four seasons with the Rockets, chose not to return to Houston when his contract expired after the team was eliminated from the team’s second round playoffs. Houston hired Silas, a first-time head coach with two decades of experience as an NBA assistant, after interviewing a variety of candidates during the search process.
Morey, whose deal with Harden opened a window for the Rockets in October 2012, resigned as Houston General Manager in October, citing a desire to spend more time with his family as a reason for ending his 13-year tenure as the Rockets at. General Director. Less than two weeks later, Morey agreed to become president of the Philadelphia 76ers for basketball operations.
Stone, a longtime front office worker for Rockets, has been promoted to general manager to replace Morey. In his first public comments since his promotion, Stone adamantly said the Rockets would continue to pursue championships with Harden as the franchise centerpiece.
“For the past eight years our goal has been to win a championship because we had James Harden,” Stone said Thursday. “We still have James Harden. Our goal is still to win a championship and when you have him you’ll be halfway there. It’s up to me and Stephen and the whole team to figure out the rest of this, but this.” The key is here. “