Harden won three scoring titles and the 2017-18 Most Valuable Player Award in Houston and led the team to the Western Conference finals twice in his first eight seasons there. Yet he was ordered away from the team Wednesday and told not to come to practice in the hours before the trade after blasting the quality of Houston’s roster.
“We’re just not good enough,” Harden said Tuesday after the Rockets’ 117-100 loss to the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. “I love this city. I literally have done everything that I can. The situation is crazy. It’s something that I don’t think can be fixed.”
Harden’s unhappiness in Houston had festered since the team lost to the Lakers in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs last season. Morey and Mike D’Antoni, who was Houston’s head coach last season and is now a Nets assistant coach, left the Rockets after the season. Houston also traded Westbrook to Washington for John Wall after Harden and Westbrook had played together for just one season.
Harden, 31, had only grown more distant under the first-year head coach Stephen Silas in the wake of all those changes. Amid increasingly loud criticism of his commitment to the team and his conditioning, he averaged a lackluster 17.4 points on 37.8 percent shooting from the field in Houston’s last five games, four of them losses.Yet neither the potential pitfalls of bringing in Harden, nor the steep cost in draft picks, dissuaded the Nets. Sean Marks, hired as the Nets’ general manager in 2016, has assembled the most talented trio of N.B.A. players since the Durant-era Golden State Warriors or the LeBron James-era Miami Heat.
This is not the first time that the Nets have gone this route. In 2004, they traded for a 27-year-old Vince Carter, who was almost as open about his displeasure with the Toronto Raptors as Harden was about his with the Rockets. Though that deal didn’t cost the Nets foundational pieces or many draft picks, and Carter played well, New Jersey only won two playoff series with Carter.
Then came the ill-fated deal with Boston in 2013 for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry, who were past their primes. It was supposed to transform the Nets into finals contenders after their move, combining Pierce and Garnett with Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez and Deron Williams. They won one playoff series and were stuck in the N.B.A.’s wilderness for years while the Celtics rebuilt their young core with the draft picks they got from the Nets in the trade. Boston added future stars like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown; Pierce left the Nets after one season, and Garnett was traded in his second.
If the Harden deal goes as poorly, it will be worse. This time around, the Nets gave up more picks, and two players with significant potential in Allen and LeVert. Allen, a 22-year-old center, was on pace for a career season, and LeVert, 26, is a dynamic guard who can score. The duo was a big reason the Nets were able to emerge from the N.B.A.’s shadows so soon after the failed Pierce and Garnett trade.