With the Golden State Warriors in a massive state of flux entering the 2020 season, other teams in the Western Conference are sensing an opening.
The Los Angeles Lakers put themselves in the championship discussion by finally making the leap to acquire Anthony Davis from New Orleans to pair with LeBron James. But the team that has been the most consistent competition for Golden State in the West, the Houston Rockets, appears to be in a state of disarray.
The disconnect between head coach Mike D’Antoni and the front office around the two sides’ turbulent pursuit of a contract extension surfaced earlier this month. But a new report from ESPN’s Tim McMahon details additional “turmoil” at multiple levels of the organization — including between star players James Harden and Chris Paul.
Friction between James Harden and Chris Paul?
To say the Rockets — who bowed out in the Western semis, again at the hands of the Warriors — relied on Harden heavily would be an understatement. He led the NBA in scoring (36.1 points per game) by a significant margin, while Paul, a nine-time All-Star whose skills are noticeably declining, faded into the background.
According to McMahon’s reporting, there was “friction” between Harden and Paul, including “tense exchanges” during the Warriors series. Paul preferred to run set plays instead of deferring to Harden’s isolation heroics. With Harden putting up historic numbers, he was not on board with Paul’s preferred approach to offense.
Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.
"Chris wants to coach James," says a source familiar with the stars' dynamic. "James looks at him like, 'You can't even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'"
Conversely, per McMahon, Paul was frustrated that Harden wouldn’t do the little things necessary to win games.
According to sources, Paul was also frustrated by what he perceived as Harden's tendency to ignore unglamorous details that impact winning -- such as moving when he gives up the ball to help spacing -- and wasn't shy about expressing those concerns.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, in an ESPN Radio interview on Monday morning, said any beef between Harden and Paul is what comes in any high-level organization with star players.
“Two competitive superstars at that level, there's going to be times when they are extremely competitive, extremely focused on how do we get to that next level, and when we don't there's going to be frustration," Morey said. "I'm frustrated, our top players are frustrated, Mike D'Antoni is frustrated. We want to take the last step and be the champion and I think it's good that there is tension in the sense that we all want to win."
Meanwhile, multiple outlets have reported that Morey has shopped Paul — and the $124 million he is owed through the three years left on his contract — on the trade market. However, Morey said Monday on a Houston radio station that he won’t take trade calls for Paul. In fact, he said he is after a third star to fit with Paul and Harden.
.@SeanUnfiltered: "Does Chris Paul want to be traded?"@dmorey: "No, Chris Paul does not want to be traded."@SeanUnfiltered: "Will you field calls on Chris Paul?"@dmorey: "No, we want to add one more star to this team."— SportsTalk 790 (@SportsTalk790) June 17, 2019
After the significant injuries to Warriors free agents Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, Morey has to sense 2020 as an immense opportunity to finally get the Rockets to the Finals.
Mike D’Antoni has yet to secure a contract extension
The strife in Houston also reportedly stems from D’Antoni’s contract situation, which could be perceived as a general reflection of the way team owner Tilman Fertitta operates. D’Antoni, who was reportedly displeased with the organization’s decision to cut loose several of his assistants, has just one year remaining on his deal.
The two sides were engaged in extension discussions, but those talks — which McMahon characterized as “contentious” — broke down. Fertitta didn’t exactly ease tensions when he wondered in the press weeks earlier about D’Antoni’s desire to coach beyond next season.
An extension was offered to D’Antoni, but the language of his buyout should the team fire him became the “primary sticking point.” The next week, Morey and Fertitta flew out to West Virginia to meet with D’Antoni and apparently reached a “handshake agreement” with revised buyout language.
But in the days since, nothing has been finalized and D’Antoni’s agent told ESPN that he has not heard from the team.
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