Opinion: James Harden is trying to be a disruptor, and it's working. His antics could poison Rockets.
James Harden used to be a headache for Houston Rockets opponents.
Now, he is a headache for the Rockets.
First, there were his outbursts at practices that included throwing a basketball at an undrafted rookie, a person with knowledge of the situation told USA TODAY Sports, requesting anonymity to speak openly about the topic. A few days later, a video of Harden at a social event with others appeared on social media.
Harden said he wasn’t at a strip club, and the NBA never concluded he was. But the league determined Harden was in violation of its COVID-19 health and safety protocols, “which among other things prohibit attending indoor social gatherings of 15 or more people or entering bars, lounges, clubs or similar establishments,” the league said in a news release Wednesday.
The NBA fined Harden $50,000 and determined he wasn’t able to play in Wednesday’s game against Oklahoma City. Had the game not been postponed, he would have forfeited $573,000. His four-day quarantine ends Friday, and he should be available for Saturday's game against Portland as long as he returns negative COVID-19 tests. Harden is lucky he didn't miss two games and a $1.14 million debit to his account.
The league was hoping it wouldn’t have to postpone a game on the second day of its season. But it’s also an early message that the NBA is taking this seriously, and there will be penalties for players who don’t follow the stringent guidelines.
There is concern among players that they will get “caught” by someone who wants a video to go viral. But there are specific rules of where players can and can’t go. They just need to know what’s allowed. The more public something becomes, the more the NBA will be aware of it. Players can go to restaurants. They can't go to clubs, bars, lounges and venues that provide live entertainment. It's probably difficult for people in their 20s and 30s, but that is the cost of doing business and earning money during a pandemic.
Harden has other issues, too.
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He is unhappy with his current team and wants a trade, and he is disrupting the positive environment that first-year general manager Rafael Stone and first-time NBA head coach Stephen Silas are trying to create.
From afar, it looks like Harden -- who has been coddled for most of his time with the Rockets and is used to getting what he wants -- is trying to take a page from the Jimmy Butler playbook.
In 2018, Butler, then with Minnesota, played the role of disruptor as he sought a trade. He had outbursts, too. But there was a slight difference. Butler punched up. He didn’t go after a first-year player or the 15th man on the roster. He went after Karl-Anthony Towns, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. You can disagree with his methods, but after using kid gloves to motivate Towns failed, Butler went after him.
Harden arrived late to training camp after going to a birthday celebration in Atlanta, and while most of his teammates have vouched for him, he remains an issue as the Rockets try to manage the situation.
Keeping him is a possibility. But the Rockets risk further poisoning what they are trying to accomplish with the players who want to be there. That helped expedite Butler’s trade from the Timberwolves to Philadelphia two seasons ago. Also, when the Timberwolves had home games, the fans booed Butler and in essence, booed the Timberwolves. No owner wants that.
But limited fans inside Houston’s arena will minimize that negative atmosphere and potentially give the Rockets more time to find the best deal. They need to return some value for a former MVP and five-time All-NBA first-team performer who has two seasons plus a player option year left on his contract.
Houston can’t just give him away to get rid of a problem. It also can’t keep him around, because it’s not fair to Stone, Silas and players who want to be there.