Will James Harden be playing the first game of his last season with the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, when the Rockets and visiting Oklahoma State Thunder open their 2020-21 seasons?
Time will tell. But Harden has made clear his desire to leave Houston after eight productive seasons, a run that has produced three scoring titles, two trips to the Western Conference Finals and an MVP trophy.
The experiment of teaming former Thunder guards Harden and Russell Westbrook lasted all of one season, with Houston pulling the plug and trading Westbrook to Washington in exchange for John Wall.
Both Wall and Harden could be unavailable for the opener based on multiple ongoing developments Wednesday. Harden reportedly was under investigation by the league for a potential COVID-19 protocol breach after a video surfaced of him partying maskless in a strip club, which Harden denied. Wall and other Rockets reportedly were sent home Wednesday after an unidentified teammate tested positive for the coronavirus.
In a busy offseason, the Rockets also lost forwards Robert Covington (Portland) and Jeff Green (Brooklyn), and guard Austin Rivers (New York) while letting coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey walk.
The Rockets reloaded on the fly and constructed a presumably competitive roster with the additions of Wall, Christian Wood and DeMarcus Cousins.
To their credit, the Rockets collectively have attempted to remain above the roiling controversy. And with Harden still in the fold for an undetermined number of days, the show must go on.
“There’s expectation, there’s change, there are so many things in the NBA that happened in the offseason and there’s nothing like NBA games, especially the first one of the season, to put all that stuff aside and concentrate on basketball,” said Rockets first-year coach Stephen Silas.
Said Wall: “At the end of the day we can’t focus on what James does off the court. All we know is he comes in every day and he works hard. He’s been one of the leaders of our team in the locker room. That’s all we can ask for. We just focus on what we can control as the teammates and coaching staff of the Rockets.”
From one perspective, the Thunder are tipping off the season in the same manner that they closed the previous campaign: scraping against the Rockets.
The Rockets ousted Oklahoma City from the Western Conference playoffs last postseason, claiming the hard-fought, first-round series in seven games against a Thunder squad that surprised during the regular season and carried that momentum into the bubble near Orlando.
But many of the primary components of the previous iteration of the Thunder departed during the truncated offseason, with four of the top five scorers now employed elsewhere: Dennis Schroder (Los Angeles Lakers), Danilo Gallinari (Atlanta), Chris Paul (Phoenix) and Steven Adams (New Orleans). The turnover also included coach Billy Donovan, who left for Chicago after five seasons in Oklahoma City when it became clear that the franchise would lean into a complete rebuild.
Rookie head coach Mark Daigneault filled that void, and he will lead the Thunder into Houston on Wednesday seeking to guide Oklahoma City in its first steps to crafting a new identity.
“The main thing that we have to carry over against any team, but especially against a team like Houston, is our competitive spirit, how hard we play and being a 48-minute team,” Daigneault said. “That’s going to give you the best chance every single night to put yourself in a position to be successful regardless of the opponent but especially against a team that is as potent as Houston is.”
–Field Level Media