That would NEVER happen!
How many times have we heard that before about an NBA superstar, and the chances that he’d leave when his contract is up?
We heard it about LeBron James. Before he left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010. Before he left the Miami Heat in 2014.
We heard it about Kevin Durant, before he left the Oklahoma City Thunder this summer. (Remember that time Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical floated the idea that Durant might head to the Golden State Warriors last February, only to be roasted by Bill Simmons for it on Simmons’ podcast, only to have Simmons later apologize when, you know, it actually happened? Good times, those were).
We’re hearing it now, about James Harden.
Look, I get it. The possibility of a once-in-a-generation-type player jumping ship isn’t something local fans and media want to think about.
The NBA is designed to restrict mobility. Players are highly incentivized to stay with their current teams, and teams are highly penalized for stockpiling talent. So rarely do top 5 players change teams. Also rare: a top 5 talent being in the NBA Draft. (After all, there are only 5 of them).
Losing that guy, then, is pretty much a doomsday scenario.
But the Houston Rockets don’t have the luxury of ignoring the possibility, because there’s a very real chance that Harden leaves for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2019, when his contract is up.
This isn’t astrophysics.
Harden’s longtime manager, Rob Pelinka, was just hired to be the Lakers’ GM. One of the reasons owner Jeanie Buss made that move is Pelinka’s relationships with current NBA players, and the fact that agents — along with top players, TV networks and shoe companies — are brokering many of the biggest moves in the sport already.
Pelinka has also been with Harden since the beginning. When Harden was drafted No. 3 overall in 2009. When he was acquired by GM Daryl Morey in 2012, and went from 6th man to star. When he had his first MVP-caliber season in 2014. When it all went to hell in 2015. When it all came back together again, now.
To put it simply, there’s a lot of history there.
So if things go half as well for Pelinka the next two years as they did for Bob Myers, the agent-turned-GM of the Warriors, there’s absolutely going to be an allure to going to Los Angeles.
Throw in Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, well, that’s as good or better than Clint Capela, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell. Add Paul George — who’s openly talked about the possibility of leaving the Indiana Pacers when his deal is up after next season and is a Palmdale, Calif., native — and all of a sudden, you’re looking at a roster that’s arguably better than the Rockets.
So yes, this is very much a thing.
Now, nobody’s saying it’s likely.
Harden seems happy in Houston, and for good reason. It’s a fantastic city, with great culture, food and (this one is particularly important for Harden) nightlife. The Rockets are a quality organization, with one of the more underrated owners in pro sports, Les Alexander, and one of the more underappreciated GMs in Morey. Plus D’Antoni, whose system seems to be made for Harden, and a roster that, today, is arguably the fourth-best in the NBA (behind the Cavs, Warriors and Spurs) and there’s no doubt, there are a lot of reasons to stay.
But don’t kid yourself: “stay or go?” is going to be a decision.
Much as you like their chances, here’s where it gets tricky for the Rockets. Barring any major upgrades to the roster, there’s a glass ceiling there. Harden, Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Capela, with Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, Nene, Dekker and Harrell coming off the bench, is nice. Should be considered overachieving for Morey, even. Masterful job, he’s done building the roster all things considered. But without a true second (or third, or fourth) star the Rockets aren’t beating the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, and sure as hell aren’t beating the Cavs in the NBA Finals.
So if you’re Harden, what do you do?
Enter every postseason hoping that any/all of Durant, Steph Curry, LeBron, Kyrie Irving suffer an injury? That Harden goes 2011 Dirk and plays like the best player on the planet for two months, with his team going 2011 Dallas Mavericks and playing out of their minds alongside?
That’s not bankable.
What may be, then, is leaving Houston for Los Angeles, who may be in better position to surround Harden with the type of player he can realistically win a championship with.
If you’re going to bet on anyone to make enough moves to keep him here, you’d bet on Morey. The way he’s made star players seemingly fall out of the sky is rivaled by only Danny Ainge of the Boston Celtics and, incidentally, Mitch Kupchak, who was fired amid the flurry of moves that landed Pelinka with the Lakers in the first place.
But even if you want to ignore the possibility, just know, the Rockets can’t — and won’t. Everything they do from this point forward, will be about re-signing Harden in 2019.
Matt hosts Saturdays from 1-4 pm on SportsRadio 610. You can, and totally should, follow him on Twitter @MattHammond.