NO GOING BACK

Here’s why the Rockets should play this differently

Disgruntled employees aren't good employees. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets open training camp for the 2020-21 season in exactly one week. So soon? Here's how things stand, and it's a wobbly picture:

James Harden, their best player, wants out of Houston so bad that he turned down the richest contract in NBA history to stay here. Harden reportedly doesn't think the Rockets are headed in the right direction and wants to play for a winner.

Russell Westbrook wants to be traded, too, but his eroding skills and crazy high salary, more than $40 million a year with three years left on his deal, make him a tough sell. A few years ago, Westbrook was MVP of the league, the first player to average a triple-double in half a century and first team All-NBA. Now he's (deep breath) a lousy shooter, not a team leader, a 3-point bricklayer, ball hog, bad in the clutch and slowing down. There are rumors that the Knicks, Clippers, Wizards and Hornets are possible trade partners for Westbrook. Yeah, we'll believe it when they announce it. And even then nothing's official until Woj tweets it.

The Rockets have a new head coach and new general manager, both of them first-timers in their new roles.

Rotation players are going, going, gone. Austin Rivers to the Knicks, Robert Covington to Portland and Jeff Green to the Nets. If Harden and Westbrook get traded, that would leave Eric Gordon, with his $16.8 million contract and declining talent, as the Rockets biggest star. Gordon reportedly was not happy with his playing time during the playoffs last season. Insiders say he's available in a trade, too.

Now Boogie Cousins enters the scene. Over/under on his next season-ending injury is Christmas Day.

To top it off, or bottom it out, there are reports that Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta's feelings are hurt by Harden and Westbrook's desire to leave. You know, after all Fertitta has done for them.

Fertitta saying his feelings are hurt is like someone murdering his parents and then asking for sympathy because he's an orphan. He is the one who created this whole mess. It would be difficult to get equal value in return for Harden, one of the most unstoppable scorers in NBA history. After years of successfully courting superstars to Houston, big-name players are not interested, thank you.

As for Fertitta's hurt feelings, he's a billionaire – at least he plays one on TV (Billionaire Buyer on CNBC). Billionaires hire people to feel sad for them.

It's said that Fertitta really wanted to hire Jeff Van Gundy as the Rockets next coach, while Harden preferred Ty Lue. After Lue agreed to coach the Clippers, Fertitta settled on longtime assistant coach Stephen Silas as a peace offering to Harden.

That's not exactly rolling out the welcome wagon for Silas, who knows he wasn't his boss' first choice. That's like asking Cinnamon to the prom, and she later finds out that you asked Jade first. Besides, you're in high school, you're too young to be dating strippers.

We also hear that Harden is angry because Fertitta made a big-money donation to President Trump's re-election campaign. We don't know if Harden really feels that way, he's not a chatty fellow. But if it's true, it's understandable for Harden, and pretty stupid of Fertitta, especially doing it publicly. Most of Fertitta's players are African-American, not exactly Trump's base of support.

At the height of Andrew Dice Clay's popularity, a reporter asked Jay Leno why he didn't do misogynistic material like the Diceman. Leno said, women don't like that brand of humor, why would he want to alienate half of his potential audience? America is bitterly divided over politics in 2020. Donating to a polarizing candidate, on either side, doesn't make good business sense. In Houston, you risk alienating half of your ticket-buyers and 100 percent of your team's leading scorer.

According to ESPN, the Rockets are willing to play a waiting game with Harden, "prepared for it to get uncomfortable" – another horrible idea. While Harden is a baller who loves the game of basketball, and nobody doubts his desire, when someone wants to leave a team or a job or a relationship, it's best to let them go. Some players, not Harden, might go half-speed to avoid an injury that would wreck a trade opportunity. Or they become a distraction. Disgruntled employees aren't good employees. Right now, there doesn't seem to be many gruntled Rockets.

The NBA season starts in less than a month. The way it looks now, good seats will be available at Toyota Center – and not because of social distancing.

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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