The dismantling of the star-studded Houston Rockets, which saw all-stars like Russel Westbrook, James Harden and Chris Paul leave the roster, along with promising newcomers like Trevor Ariza, was quite an unfortunate moment. This will probably go down as the fall of what could have been a championship team, had proper care been taken of the players and management style. Most of the players who were traded or waived were part of the franchise that led the Western Conference, and the League in Win-Loss at the end of the 2017-18 season, with 65 wins and only 17 losses. What happened in two short years from that peak could be attributed, I believe, to issues that stemmed much earlier – at the time when James Harden completed his first season with the Houston Rockets in 2013.
In 2012, the Rockets were on their way to being acknowledged as a low-tier team due to their absence from the playoffs in the previous three years and inconsistency in performance. Then, James Harden arrived from the Oklahoma City Thunder and brought the best version of himself to Houston, only to get better every season thereafter. The Rockets made a postseason appearance every year since then, the only team that can boast this. This success was largely credited to James Harden and, I believe, management revered him for saving the franchise from irrelevancy.
Consequently, management began to look the other way and let Harden live a lavish lifestyle throughout the seasons. Sure, he is a great player and would perform his level best at LA after a night of partying before the game, but this power that was bestowed on Harden by the franchise had grown on him, and he was now accustomed to it. There were several problems that arose due to this. James would make the team stay an extra day or two on road trips to Phoenix or LA – his favorite cities in terms of nightlife. Harden had a say in which players the team would draft, and would express desire to be traded if management did not recruit players he wanted on the team. This often led to management overspending on contracts simply because James wanted specific players on the team. An example of this was the acquisition of his childhood friend Russel Westbrook at the cost of Chris Paul, with whom they had their most stellar season ever.
With all the importance given to Harden, even in terms of decision making on behalf of management, I believe that he began to view the franchise as incapable of sustaining itself without Harden’s opinions in the mix. It is not surprising that this got the better of a world-class basketball player like Harden. Westbrook himself claimed that the culture of the Rockets was extremely callous, as opposed to the military-like discipline enforced at Oklahoma City Thunder. This difference in views of basketball team culture eventually created a rift between the two stars, and best friends. It is unclear which one of them wanted to leave the team first, but they no longer wished to play together. This was the final nail in the coffin of the feared Houston Rockets.
I believe that when a player, a mere contracted employee, gets enough importance and power to be able to lobby for the removal of the head coach of the team, the organization is in disarray. Many blame Harden for the fallout of the Houston Rockets, but I believe that it was the carelessness of management that led to this fallout in the first place. For someone who has been actively involved in every aspect of the organization for the better part of the decade, to suddenly not be considered in any decision making would affect their comfort in the team. I believe that the management team behind the Rockets is solely responsible for the fallout, and it should be something they learn from as they rebuild the team almost from scratch.