The Rockets Zero Sum Game Isn’t Fooling Anyone

The Rockets don’t want to trade James Harden. Sure, their lips are moving and they are saying all the right things such as they want adequate compensation. But you wouldn’t sell a 2009 BMW and ask for a 2016 BMW and a condo on the beach. No one is going to give you the moon for James Harden because what the Rockets are asking for in compensation for a 31-year old who flames out in the playoffs is a price no one would pay. Even James Harden knows that. He should be in Philly or Brooklyn or Milwaukee by now. But the Rockets are playing a game of chicken, pretending they are trying to move him while doing absolutely nothing to move him.

This is not what the Lakers did when Kobe Bryant asked to be traded. They tried to honor his trade demand in good faith. The Lakers actually had a tentative deal with Chicago. But the devil lived in the details. So many players were coming to Los Angeles, Bryant would have been in the same exact position in Chicago that he was in Los Angeles, a position he hated, having zero help. So GM Mitch Kupchak and Bryant mutually agreed to wait it out.

When Shaquille O’Neal was traded in the summer of 2004, the Lakers received Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Caron Butler, a first-round pick who would become Jordan Farmar, and a 2nd round pick who was traded to the Mavericks. Lamar Odom became a champion. Brian Grant was damaged goods and only lasted in the league two more years. Caron Butler was a two-time All-Star and had a 14-year career but he only stayed with Lakers one season. Jordan Farmar was in the league 10 years. The point is when you trade a superstar you are worse off, which is why all effort should be made in keeping said superstar happy. There is no equal value.

Unrealistic negotiations aside, the Rockets failed the first rule of marriage: keep the dirty laundry in house and don’t let the in-laws into your mess. Daryl Morey was the anchor and when he bolted the Rockets were a house of cards. Stories about terrible chemistry, entitlement, players turning on D’Antoni, Harden bitterness/jealousy, all of it came running down the hill like sewage, left and right. Hardly the culture of a winning organization but for those paying attention the barbarians at the gate weren’t a surprise. In an act of poor timing, Harden tried to blame his desire for defection on owner Tilman Fertitta’s politics; it was laughable and weak. Harden didn’t care about his politics during the last four years when he cashed Fertitta’s checks before partying around the world.

Harden isn’t a leader but he is a good player, albeit one with a game that can disenfranchise teammates. He’ll be in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. But will he return to the NBA Finals? My sense is he is exhausted at the responsibilities of leading a franchise when what he really wants is an NBA ring and the kind of respectability that Steph Curry and LeBron James receive. It reminds me of something Kevin Durant said after winning with Golden State. He thought beating LeBron James would vault him to the top of the league but nothing changed, except he had some jewelry.

Making $40 million a year gives players generational wealth that can impact their families for decades. Rightly so, players in that financial stratosphere are seduced with a lot of zeroes on checks. But longevity has its price. It may keep you wealthy but also keep you tied to a place you want to leave. That is a terrible feeling. Of course, the Rockets don’t give a zillion rocks about Harden’s feelings. They are out for themselves, hoping time will be the equalizer because it worked with Bryant. Except Bryant got Pau Gasol eight months after his trade demand. He went to the Finals and everything was forgiven. The situations are similar on the surface but much different 13 years later. Bryant didn’t want to be traded. He just wanted another All-Star. Harden wants out. Period.

The former MVP is in a tough spot. We can all sympathize with being in a place we don’t want to be. How long is Harden going to go along with the Rockets lunacy of 3 picks and a star? Not having an agent hurts Harden because he doesn’t have a professional negotiator putting pressure on Houston on the back end. There is just Harden trying to be professional in front of the camera. But if he isn’t traded at the deadline, if he hasn’t been dealt and the Rockets hover around mediocrity, he may pull a Kawhi. Say he is injured. The doctors say he is not. A stalemate and he refuses to play. Harden just may have to be the bad guy in this to get out of town.

It worked for Kawhi. It’s a pretty impressive blueprint. Shut it down because of injury and wait for the team in denial to recognize it is over.