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Rockets brace for ‘uncomfortable’ camp as rumors tamp down

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Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Five Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Multiple reports out of Houston Tuesday had the Rockets intent on keeping James Harden at least through the beginning of the coming season, even if training camp would be “uncomfortable.” Reports also indicated that Houston expects a “mountain” in return for Harden. the seven-time All-NBA player and three-time scoring champion.

ESPN’s Tim MacMahon and Adrian Wojnarowski both wrote that despite Harden’s desire to join the Nets —and Russell Westbrook’s more open trade demand, Rockets brass feel no pressure to get things done ... and hope they can repair relationships.

MacMahon wrote on Tuesday evening...

The Houston Rockets feel no pressure to trade James Harden or Russell Westbrook, regardless of the superstars’ strong desire for fresh starts with different franchises, and are “willing to get uncomfortable” as training camp opens and the season begins, sources told ESPN.

The Rockets’ front office, led by recently promoted general manager Rafael Stone, remains adamant that neither player will be traded unless a team meets the asking price.

Woj, in an interview with ESPN, laid out the Rockets thinking on their future, including Harden, noting that the 31-year-old had turned down a two-year, $103 million contract extension.

“The Rockets really want to make James Harden a Rocket for life. He had a chance to accept that deal here in recent weeks ... turned it down and has told the organization that he wants a trade to Brooklyn. Now, there had been contact between the Nets and the Rockets but I’m told there has been no substantial conversations. I think the Rockets would still, given that they still have Harden under contract for two years here. They’re not up against it in the final year of his deal.

“They want to find a way to rebuild the relationship but if they are going to move James Harden, they want a mountain in return. It’s unclear to them if Brooklyn can offer the kind of assets, players —all the things they want to be able to do a deal for James Harden. Listen, they can trade him anywhere they want in the league but they still would still want to try to fix, to repair this relationship. It may be too far gone from James Harden’s point of view but, listen, they’ll move forward here. Russell Westbrook is also obviously available in trade talks.”

Harden has little leverage. He doesn’t have a no-trade clause in his contract, only a 15 percent trade kicker that he can waive depending on where the Rockets would move him.

There’s no doubt that Harden wants Brooklyn —and has turned down the biggest contract in NBA history to emphasize his demands. The Nets’ rumored package would have included some combination of their best young players, including Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, Nicolas Claxton and Taurean Prince, as well as a raft of draft picks. Houston reportedly wants a star in return and doesn’t see any of the Nets players fitting that definition.

But as Kelly Iko and David Aldridge of The Athletic wrote Tuesday night, the chances of the Rockets getting equal value in return are small.

“When you’re trading one of the top five players in the world with three years left on his contract, anything you get is underwhelming, and you know you are losing the deal,” a team executive whose team is not involved in the trade talks said Monday.

So Iko and Aldridge report that teams interested in Harden, presumably including the Nets, are prepared to “hunker down and wait Houston out, expecting at some point in the near future, the Rockets will come to the table.”

And as Woj noted, the situation with Harden is vastly different from those of Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard who were on expiring deals when they were traded. Meanwhile, the situation in Houston remains ugly. Kendrick Perkins, Harden’s former Thunder teammate, told ESPN that Harden hasn’t answered calls from Rockets officials —including new head coach Stephen Silas— “for two weeks now. Perkins said Harden feels slighted because only other superstars, he’s not included in “decision-making.”

So what went so wrong that the face of the Rockets franchise wants out. Iko and Aldridge note that no matter what Houston tried, the franchise couldn’t get over the hump in the West, whether it was teaming Harden with Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul or Westbrook. They also write that Harden longed for his days as a young player on a young team that included Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.

During the Rockets’ 2018 trip to the Bahamas prior to training camp, Harden would watch hours of old Thunder games in his room. The presence of D’Antoni on the Nets’ staff as Steve Nash’s top assistant, along with the abilities of Kyrie Irving to take some of the ballhandling and scoring load off of Harden, would be an added bonus.

But as MacMahon wrote, the Rockets feel no obligation to meet Harden’s demands. The “mountain” Woj referred to starts with a “proven, young star” and would include a “massive picks package.” How big? The Pelicans got five firsts —three unprotected picks and two first round swaps— for Jrue Holiday, certainly a lesser star.

The Rockets are demanding an especially steep return for Harden, a perennial MVP candidate who has led the NBA in scoring the past three seasons: a proven, young star as a centerpiece along with a massive picks package, according to sources. Houston does not feel obligated to deliver Harden to the Brooklyn Nets, his preferred destination, sources said.

So, with the NBA Draft now within hours, what are the Nets to do with this reported stalemate? As Brian Lewis reports Wednesday, Bobby Marks, the Nets former assistant GM, thinks Sean Marks, the Nets current GM (no relation) is likely to be just as patient and simply doesn’t want to give up the infrastructure he built over the past nearly five years. Speaking on The FAN, Bobby Marks laid out what he thinks the Nets current thinking is.

“I don’t know if there’s that much of an appetite where you’re Brooklyn and you’re basically telling Houston, ‘Pick what you want on our roster and our draft picks,. I don’t think there’s an appetite for that where you’re giving up Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert and basically say hey if you want 2022, ’24, ’26 pick swaps and all that stuff.

“I don’t think we’re there, and I don’t think the Nets will ever be there. Knowing [GM] Sean Marks’ DNA, he’s a high-risk player, but not to that extent. So now it’s a matter of who blinks first. Would that package get shrunk a little bit as far as from a picks standpoint? So I don’t think we’re [where] this is imminent here. I think this is kind of in a waiting game where each team will probably wait each other out.”

And Marc Stein, in his weekly newsletter, points out that the Nets would have to think about integrating Harden with Durant and Irving, who as Stein points out, have yet to play together.

Just don’t forget that the ball-dominant duo of Durant and Irving has yet to play one second together in a real N.B.A. game. How sure can the Nets be that Harden, after years of dominating the ball like no other, would make the needed accommodations to play in a three-star alignment when we can’t even be sure how the first two cornerstones will mesh?

Then, there’s the question of whether the Nets need to repair their relationships with the players who’ve been mentioned as possible return for the Rockets superstar. There were reports that not only did Durant and Harden talk about how things would work on the court but also potential trade packages. It’s important to note that no one has reported what the Nets might or might not be willing to give up. It’s all been media speculation what the Rockets might require, not what the Nets are prepared to offer.

Lewis spoke with Allen two days ago at his annual Meals + Math Thanksgiving event in Brooklyn. On one hand, the 22-year-old didn’t shy away from questions about the rumors, but instead implied it’s out of his hands.

“At the end of the day I’m still going to be playing basketball. Whenever I go into the gym, and whatever happens, I’m there, I’m present. I’m ready to play for the Nets, I’m ready to learn from everybody there and just go about my stuff and just stay grounded as much as I can.”

On the other hand, the leading rebounder in the NBA playoffs expressed excitement about this season and how the Nets have already overcome a lot of obstacles. He like others also talked about how good KD has looked. Allen said he remains focused ... and happy.

“Honestly, being healthy — from injuries, and obviously COVID, But being healthy, being attentive. From what I’ve seen there can be a lot of distractions on the road to a championship. And just for me just staying in the moment, staying present, seeing the guys with experience, see how they handle things, and try to handle it myself.

“I know you say you’re competing for a championship every year, but this year we’re at full-throttle towards it. So it’s definitely going to be a new experience that I’m looking forward to, and something I can definitely learn from.”

So, barring any surprises, the Nets will make their picks for themselves Wednesday night in the NBA Draft and then try to re-sign Joe Harris and do whatever else they feel they need to do in pursuit of that championship. They already have a great roster.