James Harden, looking every bit of his listed 220 pounds, took the floor for his preseason debut Tuesday night, dropping 12 points on 3-of-10 shooting including 2-of-6 from beyond the arc in a 112-98 Rockets victory over in-state rival San Antonio. Though he has yet to publicly acknowledge his discontent (Harden declined speaking to the media Tuesday night), the frustrated 31-year-old has made it abundantly clear he wants out of Houston, barely acknowledging rookie coach Stephen Silas upon his late arrival to Rockets training camp (the two reportedly hadn’t held a real conversation until Monday) while blowing off the team’s mandatory COVID testing to party (mask-less) with rapper Lil Baby in Las Vegas.
Those familiar with Houston’s inner workings including Tim MacMahon, the author of a scathing ESPN profile detailing the Rockets’ “casual culture” that empowered Harden’s “hard-living lifestyle,” shouldn’t be surprised by this development. “You can't get mad at your kid if you let him eat candy every night and then suddenly one night you don't and they throw a tantrum," spilled a former assistant coach. “You're the one who let them eat candy every night.”
It seems, by catering to their superstar’s every whim, the Rockets created a monster, allowing Harden to run rampant over the organization. Throughout his Houston tenure, the Rockets have made—at least in MacMahon’s estimation—little to no effort to police Harden, allowing the All-Star guard control over everything from personnel moves (he pushed for the departures of both Chris Paul and Dwight Howard and was also integral in Kevin McHale’s firing) to the team’s travel plans. “If they have multiple days off, everybody knows: James is going to fly somewhere else and party," said an assistant on last year’s coaching staff. “But he's going to come back and have a 50-point triple-double, so they're okay with it."
Last offseason, Harden pushed the Rockets to trade for Russell Westbrook, his former Oklahoma City teammate and childhood friend from Greater Los Angeles, though once Westbrook arrived, it was clear the two were on different wavelengths. On one instance during the team’s two-month stay in the Orlando Bubble, Harden was nowhere to be found for the Rockets’ daily film session. While an irate Westbrook petitioned to start without him, coach Mike D’Antoni insisted the team wait until Harden arrived.
“Nothing ever starts on time," a former Rockets staffer said, complaining of Harden’s chronic tardiness. "The plane is always late. The bus is never on time ... It's just an organized AAU team." Until recently, Harden’s antics had largely been dismissed by the Rockets as “James Being James” with many in the organization feeling it was best to keep their franchise player happy, even if it meant turning a blind eye to his off-court escapades.
“Yeah, he’s going to act up,” said another ex-staffer. “He’s never heard ‘no’ before.” Harden’s perceived preferential treatment—the three-time scoring champ has made a habit of chartering private jets to popular party destinations like Vegas on his off days—has grown more apparent each year with the Rockets seemingly doing everything in their power to appease the future Hall-of-Famer. And it’s not just Harden’s appetite for all-night partying that has rubbed teammates the wrong way. As a silent protest of sorts, MacMahon notes Harden would essentially check out whenever the ball was in Chris Paul’s hands, “sometimes barely stepping over half court” in open defiance of the veteran point guard.
Harden’s increasingly erratic behavior has no doubt put Houston between a rock and a hard place, though you could argue it was the Rockets’ laissez-faire culture that entitled him in the first place. And if Harden’s recent acts of rebellion including stonewalling the media a la Kyrie Irving and showing up to camp with the physique of Kris Kringle are any indication, that uncomfortable dynamic is only going to get worse.