Honesty has always been one of Rockets head coach Stephen Silas’ trademark traits, so he was just being himself when he spoke candidly about James Harden’s status heading into the 2020-21 season. Over the weekend, he held his first workout with players since being pried from the Mavericks to take the hot seat in late October, and the eight-time All-Star was a notable absence. At the time, he cited the National Basketball Association’s stringent novel coronavirus protocols as the primary cause; his would-be top dog could most recently be found partying in Atlanta and Las Vegas in contravention of the league’s directive against breaking quarantine outside of essential activities. Yesterday, however, he was more succinct with the situation; the 2018 Most Valuable Player, he said, is “a holdout,” having missed a scheduled Sunday night workout and subsequent practice.
In describing the circumstances that led to Harden’s absences, Silas proved to be alternately patient and confident. “There is no timetable, as far as I know,” he said. “It is a setback. You want your best player to be here.” Indeed, and for more grounds than he can enumerate. The league’s reigning scoring champion also happens to be the Rockets’ longest-tenured player and acknowledged leader, and the unexplained no-shows convey the wrong message. Make no mistake; the signals being sent are deflating, new acquisition John Wall’s insistence that “we’ve been on the same page since I’ve been traded here” notwithstanding.
Depending on source and perspective, Harden’s decision to go dark on the Rockets stems from his disappointment with their plight following the resignations of erstwhile bench tactician Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey. He’s also said to be angling for a transfer to the Nets and a reunion with good buddy Kevin Durant. So much for the merit of kowtowing to his every whim and fancy. At his behest, they agreed to ship Chris Paul and a bevy of draft assets for Russell Westbrook in June 2019. The latter wound up being an extremely expensive one-season rental after they again acceded to his desire to bring in Wall. Now, everything they’ve done for him apparently counts for squat; despite changing their entire system to match his style and reconfiguring their roster to suit his preferences, the thanks they get is a demand that he be moved. And so bent on leaving is he that he doesn’t have second thoughts holding them hostage.
It’s too bad, really, because Harden’s a force on the court, capable of willing the Rockets to a playoff berth all by and unto himself. This is why he’s due $40.8 million for his 2020-21 campaign, not to mention another $90 million after. They need him in order to stay relevant, which is why they’ve also added such notables as Christian Wood and DeMarcus Cousins. And which is why they’re angling to keep him, or, at worst, get fair value in exchange for his departure. And, as the annals of pro hoops has shown, “fair value” doesn’t mean four quarters to the dollar.
Silas is himself a holdout — that is, for the possibility of the relationship to be mended enough for Harden to consent to sticking around. Meanwhile, he remains frank about the prospects. “What’s real is he’s not here. And he has a reason, but that’s on him to tell whoever what his reason is.” Meanwhile, Rockets fans get to experience the same old, same old: They lose anew.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management,corporate communications, and business development.