Andy Larsen: There’s one man responsible for the Rockets being the NBA’s worst team — James Harden

The stunts he pulled to force his way out of Houston have sullied the good things he’s done with the Nets

Houston Rockets' James Harden leaves the court following a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in an NBA basketball game Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, in Houston. (Carmen Mandato/Pool Photo via AP)

Do we here in Utah feel bad for the lowly Houston Rockets, owners of the NBA’s worst record at 15-44? OK, probably not.

But it was wild to come into the Jazz’s matchup against the Rockets on the road and to have exactly zero fear of them. Remember, this was a team that the Jazz lost games in order to avoid in the playoffs last year. This was a team that’s shared a decades-long rivalry with Utah — with plenty of vitriol back and forth between fans on both sides. And now, they’re a calamity.

I do think there is some blame to go around. Injuries are a bummer: Eric Gordon might help. Sterling Brown and D.J. Augustin are certainly NBA players. Former Jazzman Dante Exum might be, though he’s running out of time to show it.

But mostly, James Harden is the architect of the Rockets’ demise. As ESPN’s Tim MacMahon wrote in January, the Houston Rockets’ culture during Harden’s tenure was “Whatever James wants.” The Rockets stayed overnight after games in his favorite cities, so that he could go out on the town. If the Rockets had a two- or three-day break in the schedule, he’d call for an off day from practice so he could charter a plane, go to another city (often Vegas) and party there.

And in terms of on-court decisions, there’s a litany of questionable ones. He asked for Kevin McHale to be fired. He pushed for the departures of both Dwight Howard and Chris Paul — the latter looking especially foolish now. Harden said he’d demand a trade if they didn’t trade Paul, the superior player, for his friend Russell Westbrook. One season later, he didn’t want to play with Westbrook anymore, because Westbrook wanted timeliness and structure.

Westbrook was traded for Washington’s John Wall, but Harden still wasn’t happy. He wanted out. So he didn’t show up for training camp; didn’t communicate with the team during his absence, leaving the Rockets twisting in the wind. While all this was going on, it turns out Harden was partying maskless during the pandemic, going to rapper Lil Baby’s birthday party and delivering him $100K stacks of cash.

“Yeah, he’s going to act up,” a former Rockets staffer told ESPN. “He’s never heard ‘no’ before.”

This line from MacMahon’s article says a lot: “The Rockets hope Harden ... will be professional as they patiently explore the trade market, searching for a deal that wouldn’t doom the franchise to a long, painful rebuild.”

Well, Harden got his wish: He was traded to the Brooklyn Nets. The Rockets got surprisingly little in return — but after everything Harden had done to betray the franchise, demand for one of the best offensive players in NBA history was muted.

The Rockets, indeed, look pretty darn doomed to a long, painful rebuild. They do have some picks, but none currently projected to be lottery picks, save their own. It’s not a huge treasure chest of assets, like the one up in Oklahoma City. And as far as building-block young players go, well, it depends what you think about Christian Wood, but that’s about it.

It’s hard to look at everything that happened this season and call it anything but a disastrous selfish tantrum from an all-time great. It’s why Harden’s MVP, or even All-NBA case this season is laughable — as much as he’s been a good player as a Net, his sabotage turned a very good team, a frightening opponent, into the worst team in the NBA with the blink of an eye. The negatives have outweighed Harden’s positives this season, and it’s hard to argue otherwise.

Harden ignited the Rockets, then blew them to pieces.