GIVE HARDEN A BREAK

Before making your mind up about James Harden, consider this

Rockets fans were not happy with Harden. Photo by Getty Images

There was something different about the Houston Rockets first practice of the 2020-21 NBA season. For the first time in nearly a decade, serial scoring champ James Harden wasn't there. And the first pre-season game is Friday, with the official season tipping off in less than two weeks.

If not in camp, then where was Harden? He spent last Thursday in Atlanta celebrating the birthday of his best friend and famed trap rapper, Lil Baby. After the party, he flew to Las Vegas for more weekend partying before returning home – at least for now – Houston.

Rockets fans were not happy with Harden skipping class, especially after a video surfaced on Twitter showing the Beard presenting Lil Baby a Prada duffle bag stuffed with $100,000 cash, a $300,000 Richard Mille watch and a bunch of honeybuns.

Because he was out-of-town last week, Harden must test negative three more times for COVID-19 before he is allowed to team practices. Not helping matters, in all the photographs published from Harden's weekend fiesta, there wasn't a single soul wearing a mask.

Since appearing in Atlanta and Las Vegas, Harden has quickly bolted up the list of Houston athletes that fans want out of the Bayou City. Harden reportedly has told Rockets management that while he'd prefer to be traded to the Brooklyn Nets, he'd accept a swap to the Philadelphia 76'ers. It was announced overnight that Harden added the Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks to his list. While breaking up is hard to do, deep down can you really blame Harden for wanting to leave the Rockets? Former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who either resigned or was fired by team owner Tilman Fertitta, is now the boss man in Philadelphia. Harden and Morey were soulmates trying to capture an NBA title for Houston. Although the tandem failed to reach the promised land, it's obvious they wouldn't mind chasing the goal in Philadelphia.

Many longtime Rockets fans have turned on the reigning 3-time NBA scoring champ. But have they considered that maybe Harden would benefit from an occasional day off like, you know, LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard or equivalent superstars? Harden is hardly the first sports veteran to find any excuse to miss the opening few days of training camp.

Bear in mind, because of COVID-19, this was the briefest NBA off-season. Doesn't it feel like we watched the Los Angeles Lakers win the bubble title only a couple of months ago? Actually, the Lakers brushed aside the Heat on Oct. 11 – less than two months ago. Harden, the ultimate gym rat and workhorse, was third in the league in minutes played last season. OK, maybe partying in Atlanta and Vegas wasn't the best form of R&R, but Harden was entitled to some extra time off. Give Harden a break.

NBA off-seasons typically last more than four months. The upcoming season will not be played in a bubble, but the league is asking players to avoid bars and other risky places and situations. That's not exactly the lifestyle Harden is known for – not by a longshot.

"While in their team's home market, team personnel will be prohibited from going to bars, lounges or clubs, from attending live entertainment or sports events, from using gyms, spas or pools, or from participating in social gatherings with more than 15 people," stated the NBA outline for the 2020-2021.

And it doesn't get much better on the road.

"On the road, players, coaches and staff will be permitted to dine outside their hotels if the restaurants provide outdoor dining, have fully privatized indoor rooms, or have met requirements to be formally approved by the league and the players' union. The NBA and NBAPA will work to provide a list of at least three approved restaurants in each market."

Say what you want about Harden, but once he tests negative three more times, he will return to the unstoppable offensive force we have come to know and once loved. Harden is entering a new chapter in his career. There is a new GM, a new coach, new teammates, and a new style of play. Before fans trash him, they need to walk a mile in his basketball shoes - $94 on sale this week at adidas.com.

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This week we discuss what the Rockets will look like once John Wall returns to the lineup to join new teammate Victor Oladipo and budding start Christian Wood. Plus, what fans should expect from the new-look Rockets this season, if they'll make the playoffs, and much more.

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