At a crossroads, what do the Rockets do with James Harden and Russell Westbrook?

Publicly, the Houston Rockets have delivered a consistent message: Everything is fine. We’re not blowing up the team, and we’re excited about the offseason. Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni are gone, but James Harden is still here and we intend to contend for a championship.

Privately, though, Houston does not appear to be all that harmonious. While Harden remains committed to the Rockets, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Kelly Iko, Russell Westbrook reportedly wants to be traded. 

This news follows a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon that Harden and Westbrook have let the front office know that they’re concerned about where the franchise is going. On ESPN’s “The Jump,” analyst Kendrick Perkins said that Harden hasn’t answered phone calls from ownership, the front office, or new coach Stephen Silas for about two weeks.

None of this should be a shock. Harden and Westbrook wanted to team up last summer, but they were a predictably tricky fit in the halfcourt, which forced the front office to get rid of Clint Capela. As encouraging as it was to hear Silas talk about making the team less predictable, I couldn’t write about that without acknowledging the obvious: Strategic tweaks don’t matter unless Harden gives Silas and new general manager Rafael Stone a chance.

Harden is 31 years old and has lived through several reinventions with the Rockets. In eight seasons, his pick-and-roll partner went from Omer Asik to Dwight Howard to Capela to nobody. He has shared the backcourt with Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Ty Lawson, Chris Paul and Westbrook. He became a star under Kevin McHale and a nominal point guard under Mike D’Antoni, changing the game with his isolations and stepback 3s. The Rockets were good enough to win the 2018 title, but after a series of untimely injuries and win-now transactions, they are a fringe contender at best, without young players or picks that can be cashed in for veteran help. 

According to ESPN, both Harden and Westbrook were on board with hiring Silas, and Harden has been talking to the front office about moves it can make to strengthen their roster. This conflicts with Perkins’ comments. The former NBA center, who played with Harden and Westbrook in Oklahoma City, said on “The Jump” that Harden and Westbrook don’t feel included in Houston’s decision-making process. They wanted the team to hire Tyronn Lue as coach, and they wanted a say in the GM search, according to Perkins. When Morey stepped down, the Rockets immediately promoted Stone. 

Since acquiring Harden from the Thunder in 2012, Morey built every iteration of the team around the bearded maestro. If Harden is indeed “locked-in” this season, Stone could potentially move Westbrook and bring back a group that fits around him more cleanly. With three years and more than $132 million left on his contract, though, it would be a miracle to do that without dramatically lowering the Rockets’ short-term ceiling. 

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Stone said Houston would be “very aggressive” in terms of adding talent, and he has all but guaranteed that it will have a more traditional center in its rotation next season. Beyond the midlevel exception, though, the Rockets don’t have many tools at their disposal. Danuel House surely has trade value, but is he worth more to any other team than he is to this one? Trading Eric Gordon now would be selling extremely low, and his playmaking is even more crucial if Westbrook is out of the picture. 

Ideally, Harden would help the Rockets recruit players who might take the MLE or a minimum contract. Maybe that can still happen, but it’s alarming that these reports came out a week before the draft. Shortly before that, the moratorium on transactions will be lifted, and on Nov. 20 free agency will officially begin. The compressed calendar means that training camp is less than three weeks away. Welcome to the job, Rafael Stone! 

One way or another, Houston must quickly figure out what its options are with Westbrook, where exactly it stands with Harden and how to best approach free agency. On “The Jump,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe said that the Rockets “trying to remain calm,” but this was before the Westbrook news was reported. As long as Harden doesn’t ask for a trade, it’s rational to give it another go with him next season, provided that they believe two things: That such a request isn’t inevitable, and that trading their franchise player isn’t in their long-term best interests anyway. 


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