Such is often the case in high-profile NBA deals: rumours of unhappiness long precede any official trade calls taking place. It happened when Vince Carter wanted out of Toronto, his on-court performances doing as much of the talking as his post-game interviews. It happened with Kawhi Leonard, whose quiet dissatisfaction with the San Antonio Spurs’ handling of his chronic quad injury was one of the few details leaked to the public, and eventually became a contributing factor in his trade to the Toronto Raptors.
And it happened for Harden in the weeks leading up to his blockbuster acquisition by the Brooklyn Nets this season, with reports swirling about the specific nature of why he wanted out. On Friday, he explained it in his own words.
“After the bubble, after that loss, I just wanted to re-evaluate my career and the team and the direction that the organization was going,” Harden told reporters during his first media availability as a member of the Nets. “You look from top to bottom, from the general manager leaving, to Mike D’Antoni leaving, to re-evaluating our personnel and seeing if we had enough to compete with the best teams in the league. As time went on, free agency and that started to go on, it was like, well, I felt like we didn’t have a chance.”
The Rockets’ post-season shortcomings have been a recurring issue for the team during Harden’s tenure — not a one-off event in the NBA’s bubble. Harden’s box-score performances were predictably stellar. He averaged 28.4 points, 7.1 assists and 5.4 rebounds across 85 post-season appearances with Houston. But only twice in his eight Rockets seasons did his on-court excellence, and Houston’s willingness to mould their team to fit his strengths, result in Conference Finals appearances — and a pair of losses to the Golden State Warriors.
This past off-season, after a second-round loss to the eventual-champion Los Angeles Lakers, the Rockets underwent a significant front-office overhaul. They replaced head coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey, the lead architects behind every roster and on-court iteration of the Rockets that tried to best-suit Harden’s needs.
But the roster changes themselves were limited until Harden’s co-star, Russell Westbrook, was sent to the Washington Wizards in exchange for John Wall. The early results were mixed, with Houston opening the season 4-6.
“As much as I love the city of Houston — loved being there — I think at this point in my career it’s not about money, it’s not about anything else but having a chance to reach that ultimate goal. It’s winning at the highest level,” Harden said. “It didn’t go as smooth as I would have loved it to go but I think both sides are happy.”
Since his displeasure with the Rockets was first reported, Harden has been at the centre of multiple non-basketball related incidents.
Prior to the season starting, Harden’s arrival to training camp was delayed when he decided to breach COVID-19 protocols by attending rapper Lil Baby’s birthday party in Atlanta. Neither Harden nor Lil Baby were wearing masks in the photo Harden shared on his personal Instagram.
Then, ahead of Houston’s season opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder, an investigation was launched by the NBA into a viral video that showed a mask-less Harden attending an event at a club — violating the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Harden was fined $50,000 for the violation.
On the court, Harden’s final days as a member of the Rockets saw him held out practice after he publicly commented that he did not think his issues with the team could be fixed.
“I regret [the way things ended in Houston],” Harden said. “I don’t need the attention, especially the negative energy, the negative attention. I’ve never been that guy. There were some things that I felt like were out of my character. But the ultimate goal was to get somewhere where I can compete and here I am in Brooklyn.”
The Nets acquired Harden from the Rockets on Wednesday in a blockbuster deal that will reunite him with Kevin Durant, his teammate in Oklahoma City. Harden could play as early as Saturday if all the players in the deal pass their physicals in time.