The Houston Rockets Have to Keep James Harden Happy. But How?

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The N.B.A. draft will take place on Nov. 18, nearly five months later than scheduled. An abbreviated free agency period will likely be stuffed into Thanksgiving week afterward.

The off-season, like the 2019-20 season that preceded it, resembles nothing teams are accustomed to — except for the chatter about potential trades, hires and the like. That talk never stops.

Let’s tap into the grapevine for the latest around-the-league buzz, starting with a superstar’s uncertain future in Houston:

James Harden’s happiness in Houston must be closely monitored.

Mike D’Antoni walked away from the Rockets as head coach less than 48 hours after their season ended, with no promise of a new job, and will be a Nets assistant coach next season under Steve Nash. Daryl Morey then fled Clutch City, in the midst of a coaching search, to take over the Philadelphia 76ers’ front office.

And Houston didn’t hire either of the candidates Harden endorsed the strongest to replace D’Antoni: Tyronn Lue and John Lucas.

Rival teams are thus already wondering: a.) how perturbed Harden is, and b.) how long before the Tilman Fertitta-owned Rockets seriously entertain trading him?

The Rockets are adamant that Harden will not be shopped. They have the N.B.A.’s longest active playoff streak, at eight seasons in a row and counting, which began after Morey traded for Harden in October 2012. Fertitta insisted during a recent CNBC appearance that the Rockets are “not blowing up anything” and “plan on contending.” He has owned the team long enough to know that just keeping Harden should keep the Rockets in 50-win territory.

Houston’s resolve, though, is about to be tested, unless Harden warms to the change all around him.

Rafael Stone, Houston’s new general manager, made a sensible choice in difficult circumstances by hiring Stephen Silas to succeed D’Antoni. Fertitta had strong interest in ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy, despite considerable reported reluctance from both Harden and Russell Westbrook, while Stone has been Lucas’s biggest backer in the organization. But the coach Houston ultimately chose got strong reviews for his work in each of his previous stops (Cleveland, Golden State, two stints with Charlotte and Dallas) and is known for his offensive acumen.

Silas has always been well liked, too, as evidenced by the praise his hiring drew on social media from the likes of Luka Doncic and Jamal Crawford. The relationship he builds with Harden figures to be the most important of his career, but it’s certainly promising for the Rockets that he has always been able to click with stars, going back to his early days in Cleveland and Golden State when Silas could often be found before games preparing LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

Give the Philadelphia 76ers this much: No team is spending more on organizational upgrades.

More than two years after The New York Times revealed the Sixers’ first attempt to lure Daryl Morey away from Houston, Philadelphia has hired him to a monster five-year deal.

And that’s after Philadelphia awarded a five-year, top-dollar contract to its new coach, Doc Rivers; committed to a contract extension with the holdover general manager Elton Brand; and hired two executives (Indiana’s Peter Dinwiddie and Orlando’s Prosper Karangwa) under Brand.

Industry insiders estimate that Morey received a salary in excess of $10 million annually. Specific figures were not announced, but some insist that the deal tops the five-year, $60 million contract that Phil Jackson reportedly received when he was named team president by the Knicks. The Sixers, citing team policy, declined to discuss the contract specifics when asked this week.

One immediate plus for the Sixers in finally landing their man: Morey, as we know from the nearly 80 trades he swung in Houston from 2007 through last season, has the gumption to break up the tandem of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons by trading one of them if Rivers is unable to get them functioning better together.

One immediate concern: Morey, Rivers and Brand are all accustomed to having varying degrees of shot-calling power. So they will also have to prove, just like Philadelphia’s franchise duo, that they can mesh.

Morey joins Toronto’s Masai Ujiri and Boston’s Danny Ainge as high-profile executives in the Atlantic Division, where the Knicks’ new team president, Leon Rose, received his own lucrative deal in the spring.

Rose’s annual salary, I’m told, is in the $8 million range after he became the latest player agent to make the leap to the front office.

The last of the league’s nine coaching vacancies is in Oklahoma City.

Will Hardy, an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, Charles Lee from the Milwaukee Bucks’ staff and Mark Daigneault, an assistant coach with the Thunder, are among the candidates who have received strong consideration for the post.

Other outlets have mentioned the Thunder assistant coach Brian Keefe and the former Nets assistant Will Weaver, who is coaching the Sydney Kings in Australia, as contenders.

But I’ve also braced myself, from the moment Billy Donovan and the Thunder parted ways on Sept. 8, for Oklahoma City General Manager Sam Presti to hire someone whose name had never been connected to the job. That would be the Prestian outcome.

Hardy has emerged as a key member of Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio staff and also worked under Popovich as part of the U.S.A. Basketball staff in 2019 when the United States cratered to a seventh-place finish in the FIBA World Cup. Lee has spent the past two seasons on Mike Budenholzer’s staff in Milwaukee after starting his N.B.A. coaching career in Atlanta. Daigneault has been in the N.B.A. for only one season, but he coached Oklahoma City’s N.B.A. G League team for five seasons before that after a collegiate stint under Donovan at Florida.

I was late to “Cobra Kai” on Netflix and can’t get enough of it now, and “Ted Lasso” on Apple TV+ has been another godsend during this very short N.B.A. off-season, but I miss “Game of Zones” badly.

Who’s with me?

The Scoop @TheSteinLine

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Corner Three

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)

Q: Take all the players ever and ask this question: Who would you draft first? You would pick Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That’s how you settle the GOAT debate. In fact, you’d pick several centers before you got to Michael Jordan or LeBron James. But Kareem as the No. 1 overall pick is unassailable. You can’t teach height, as the old saying goes, and Abdul-Jabbar is the most skilled player to play basketball’s most important position. — Mark Calahan

Stein: Kudos for keeping the GOAT debate alive in this newsletter, no matter how hard we try to move on from it, with a previously unsubmitted argument.

But we have to ask: When is this theoretical draft taking place? In which N.B.A. era, in other words, would the mythical team we select be playing?

If we were drafting for today’s N.B.A., given how modern front offices think, I don’t see Abdul-Jabbar as an unassailable No. 1 pick. Not at all. Not when teams are prioritizing creators with the ball and versatile wing players who have the size and mobility to defend multiple positions.

Although it is gratifying to see such staunch support for Abdul-Jabbar, since he rarely receives that sort of GOAT backing, I suspect several general managers in your theoretical draft would be looking at noncenters if they had to build a team for the way the game is played in 2020. M.J., LeBron and Magic Johnson would all be contenders for the No. 1 overall pick — as well as a couple of Kareem’s predecessors, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, who possessed elite mobility and athleticism. Russell didn’t have Anthony Davis’s all-around game offensively, but you can certainly imagine him causing the same sort of defensive havoc and guarding all sorts of scorers on switches.

The real issue here is that there have been way too many greats in this sport to describe anyone as an “unassailable” No. 1 pick in the draft you’re proposing. It’s hard enough to get basketball people to agree on four names for the sport’s conceptual Mount Rushmore.

Where we agree is the notion that great big men will always be able to tilt the court. I’ve never bought into the “big man is dead” talk that increasingly circulates; some of that aforementioned focus on guards and wings stems from what’s available.

Rest assured that prime Shaquille O’Neal would find a way to flourish now, just as Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid do. It’s just harder than ever to find a Shaq. Or a Wilt.

Q: Tyronn Lue worked as an assistant coach for the Clippers before being named as their new head coach. Has any other championship-winning head coach subsequently worked as an assistant coach? — Jeff Pucillo (Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.)

Stein: My research turned up three predecessors to Lue, who won a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers in his first season as a head coach in 2015-16 and was a Clippers assistant last season.

Paul Westhead, who has a new book out (“The Speed Game”) about his life in the sport, was an assistant coach with three franchises (Golden State, Orlando and Seattle/Oklahoma City) after winning a ring with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979-80.

K.C. Jones coached the Boston Celtics to two championships in the 1980s and worked as an assistant with the Detroit Pistons in 1994-95.

Al Attles coached Golden State to its first championship in 1974-75 and, in the same season that Jones worked in Detroit (1994-95), Attles served as an assistant coach with the Warriors.

Q: Was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope the worst third-best player on a championship team? — Colin Walsh (Brooklyn)

Stein: This one, cold as it sounds, was posed frequently during the N.B.A. finals. Kyle Kuzma’s underwhelming season opened the door to a debate, and I would argue, in response, that Caldwell-Pope was not the only nominee for No. 3 status.

The gulf between LeBron James and Anthony Davis and the rest of the Lakers’ roster is considerable, but that’s where the clarity ends. As well as Caldwell-Pope played in the finals, Rondo may have had an even bigger role once you factor in his locker room voice — and depending on how deeply you want to dig into this one.

I’d rather not ponder it too much. Caldwell-Pope and Rondo played their best basketball of the season when it mattered most and should be celebrated for doing so rather than scorned.

Some of us are also old enough (barely) to remember when Bob Gross, never an All-Star in an eight-year career shortened by injury, made a series-tilting impact in Portland’s comeback from 2-0 down to win four games in a row against Philadelphia in the 1976-77 finals. Matched up against the 76ers’ iconic Julius Erving, Gross scored 49 points in the last two games.

Most important here is the reality that the league’s overall quality was unquestionably down in 2019-20. The Lakers, to their credit, took advantage. But I believe they will have to strengthen their roster to repeat.

Having two of the league’s top 10 players and a spotty supporting cast was enough last season. I can’t see the league’s degree of difficulty staying that way with a slew of injured stars (Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) returning and a round of roster shuffling to come.

Numbers Game

73.3

Twenty-two of the league’s 30 teams have not played since Sept. 3. If the N.B.A. succeeds in securing Dec. 22 as opening night of the 2020-21 season, that means 73.3 percent of the league will have enjoyed three months of rest before the Dec. 1 start of training camps. The union has pushed back on the league’s proposed timetable, which imposes a daunting turnaround on teams that made long playoff runs, such as the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat, but the majority of the league has had considerable time off.

286

For the eight teams that were excluded from the N.B.A. restart at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., 286 days will have elapsed between the N.B.A.’s last night of pre-pandemic games on March 11 and Dec. 22.

19

Stephen Silas had been an assistant coach for the 19 N.B.A. seasons before the Houston Rockets finally gave him his first head-coaching shot. As noted last week on Twitter by the former New York Times scribe Howard Beck, Silas thus became the fourth active N.B.A. coach whose father held the same post, joining Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff (Bernie Bickerstaff), Denver’s Mike Malone (Brendan Malone) and Minnesota’s Ryan Saunders (Flip Saunders).

.500

The Rockets posted a winning percentage of .500 or better in each of Daryl Morey’s 14 seasons with the team. Morey, who abruptly stepped down as Rockets general manager on Oct. 15, was the lead decision maker in Houston’s front office for the last 13 of those seasons. No other team in the league posted a .500 or better record over the same span.

2

Leave it to my trusty historian pal @ToddSpehr35 to have it in his files that Portland’s Bob Gross received two votes for N.B.A. finals Most Valuable Player Award in 1976-77. The Trail Blazers’ Bill Walton won the award with six votes and Philadelphia’s Julius Erving received three despite playing for the losing team. It was Erving’s first season in the N.B.A. after starring for the Virginia Squires and the New York Nets in the A.B.A.

Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to [email protected].

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