In the aftermath of their loss to the Golden State Warriors in the second round of the playoffs, there have been plenty of rumors and reports about the Houston Rockets shaking things up this summer. Everyone on the team is , per multiple reports, and they’ve struggled to come to an agreement with head coach Mike D’Antoni on a contract extension.
But now, after Kevin Durant suffered a torn Achilles in Game 5 of the NBA Finals and Klay Thompson went down with a torn ACL in Game 6, their nemesis has all of a sudden been neutralized. If ever there was a reason for the Rockets to just run things back and try again next season, the Warriors’ injury problems have provided one.
The problem is that the Rockets’ only failures weren’t on the court last season. According to an in-depth profile of the team by Tim MacMahon, there’s a festering divide between their two stars, James Harden and Chris Paul. From passive aggressive postgame press conference moments, to cutting remarks during and after games, to philosophical differences on offense, Harden and Paul struggled to coexist at times. Via ESPN:
“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.'”
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.
Harden, by nature, tends to avoid conflict but was pushed hard enough to snap back at Paul from time to time. That’s what happened during the Rockets’ elimination loss, when, team sources said, Harden told Paul he didn’t always know best and had talked too much.
“Chris has a personality where he just doesn’t let anything go,” a team source says. “He just keeps pestering and pestering and pestering and pestering. Sometimes James has had enough — and not just him. That’s what makes [Paul] a winner and also what keeps him from being a big-time winner. He’s got to temper that.”
There are always going to be disagreements or heated moments between star players at times, especially with a team like the Rockets, who keep advancing deep into the playoffs before falling short. That’s a frustrating experience.
However, these anecdotes speak to a bigger problem and not just a few moments of frustration during another long season. Their different personalities, coupled with the fact that Harden is entering his prime, while Paul is nearing the end of his career, create a difficult dynamic. Plus, there’s the fact that Paul just signed a huge extension worth $160 million over four years, which will make it tricky to trade him, and pretty much impossible to get back anything of equal value.
In situations like this, shaking up the roster to get some new players into the locker room might make sense, but regardless of the moves they make on the periphery, it seems like there will always be some friction between Harden and Paul, which puts the Rockets in a tough spot.
With the title race as wide open as it’s been in a decade, the Rockets are in a position to contend if they run things back yet again next season. But the two players who will put them in that spot might also end up being their downfall if they can’t figure out a way to coexist.
It’s going to be a fascinating summer in Houston.