There is no simple, easy playbook for forcing a trade in the NBA. There is no way to demand a trade where every stakeholder's interest is indulged, where everyone's a happy winner. James Harden might've known that before he agitated his way to Brooklyn over the course of several bitter months.
He definitely knows now.
As Harden returns to Houston for the first time since the Rockets traded their franchise cornerstone, we're reminded that for NBA superstars, there is always a way out of any situation or contract.
With Harden in tow, the Nets are now the latest supernova franchise fast-tracked by superstar interests, a clear title contender with elite playmakers.
The Rockets are now on a course to bottom out, in the midst of a 12-game losing streak, left to tout financial flexibility and hypothetical future players.
On Sept. 12, Harden exited the playoffs feeling frustrated, defeated and confused after losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals, according to sources close to him. His Rockets were a contender every year, but they never managed to make the Finals. After eight years with the franchise, Harden was starting to feel legitimate doubt about staying in Houston, according to a source familiar with his thinking.
That doubt only magnified on Oct. 15, when Rockets general manager Daryl Morey stepped down because of personal reasons.
Morey spent nearly a decade getting Harden anything he wanted. He acquired the head coach Harden wanted in Mike D'Antoni and the players Harden wanted in Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. He gave Harden a max contract extension that would theoretically keep him in Houston through 2023.
In the wake of Morey's departure, Harden began telling his inner circle that he was suddenly feeling a culture shift. In his eyes, the Rockets were no longer a contender.
Throughout the month of October, Harden considered leaving Houston. He had quietly spoken to some of his inner circle about his interest in the Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers.
In November, the thought of joining Brooklyn grew more intriguing for Harden. He started training with Kevin Durant at the Mamba Academy, developing a relationship with the team.
By Nov. 11, Harden indicated to Russell Westbrook he wanted to be traded to Brooklyn. As a result, Westbrook asked out. Not because of Harden's partying tendencies or the Rockets' culture issues, but simply because he knew Harden wanted out, according to multiple sources close to the Rockets.
Harden spent significant time in L.A. with Durant in mid-November and became fully committed to the idea of playing with the Nets. The two met to reaffirm their desire to play with one another and started laying the foundation for a trade, sources say.
On Nov. 14—two months before the trade was officially announced—early talks between Houston and Brooklyn included Harden for Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Taurean Prince and Jarrett Allen. The picks weren't finalized at that point, but a verbal agreement was made, according to sources close to Harden and Durant. (A Nets spokesperson denies a verbal agreement was made at that time.) Harden and Durant believed the deal was done and celebrated the occasion together.
By Nov. 17, news of the potential deal had spread across the league. Harden and Durant thought it would be finalized on Nov. 22, when trades could officially be announced. But Rockets management changed its tune. Harden, Durant and the Nets had underestimated the Rockets' capacity to posture for a better deal.
"Houston was being difficult," a front-office executive familiar with the Rockets' negotiating tactics at the time told Bleacher Report.
In the following days, Harden began making his partying increasingly public. He showed up to training camp late and appeared visibly out of shape. He believed he could force a trade if he could anger team governor Tilman Fertitta enough, according to sources close to Harden.
"He would have to outdo what Jimmy Butler did in Minnesota," a rival Eastern Conference executive said.
Harden had to figure it out on the fly. He was trying to execute a forced trade like Anthony Davis' exit from New Orleans, but without the backing of a super agent like Rich Paul. Since 2018 after he parted ways with Rob Pelinka and Diana Day from Landmark Sports Agency, Harden's mother, Monja Willis, has represented her son. Harden eventually realized he'd need some assistance and hired Jason Ranne and Chafie Fields from Wasserman to get him a deal.
As Harden delayed his arrival to training camp in December, the Heat became the front-runner for him. Harden's main preference was—and always was—the Nets, but he had no problem going to Miami. Jimmy Butler had even OK'd the trade, according to a league source. Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reported that the Heat were open to offering two of their younger players, a 2025 first-round pick (provided the Oklahoma City Thunder unlocked the 2023 first-rounder owed them) and Andre Iguodala and Kelly Olynyk.
While Harden participated in Houston's training camp, he believed he would be traded to the Nets or Heat by the start of the season on Dec. 22.
But the Rockets wanted more than what the Heat could offer.
Adam Borai of Five Reasons Sports Network reported the Rockets wanted Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, Precious Achiuwa, Kendrick Nunn, salary filler, two first-round picks and four pick swaps. But that wasn't happening. The Heat refused and told the Rockets their final offer, and on Dec. 21, the Heat pulled out, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst.
Harden began taking matters into his own hands. On the same day the Heat pulled out, Harden got into a confrontation with teammate Jae'Sean Tate during practice and threw a ball at him, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.
Then on Jan. 12, Harden drew a clear line in the sand, telling reporters the Rockets were "just not good enough."
There was no coming back to the locker room after those remarks. At that point, the Rockets stopped posturing. The next day, Harden was confident he would join the Nets by the end of the week.
There were even legitimate conversations that Kyrie Irving was potentially on the table, as some in the Nets organization had grown increasingly frustrated with Irving's absences at the time, according to sources. But two Nets sources deny he was ever included in any serious conversations and said the idea came from the Rockets, not the Nets.
During this time, the Rockets were reportedly using the 76ers as leverage to increase the Nets' offer. The Sixers offered a package centered around Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle, but Houston didn't even call to counteroffer, according to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The Nets deal happened shortly thereafter, two months in the making. Harden finally engineered his escape, and the Rockets could finally move on.
"I would say what's super exciting about this deal is it gives us flexibility," Houston general manager Rafael Stone told reporters afterward. "In the NBA, picks, especially high picks, are the best currency."
That's good spin. But recent history would suggest multiple superstars are the best currency in the NBA. Just ask the Lakers and the Golden State Warriors. The Nets have a near-certain future of relevance and deep playoff runs, and the Rockets have a wholly uncertain outlook.
The Harden saga pushed the boundaries of player empowerment, where health and safety rules were cast aside, teammates were disrespected and fans were enraged.
It's a dangerous thought for Milwaukee Bucks fans, Atlanta Hawks fans, or any team centered around a single star. What happens if Giannis Antetokounmpo or Trae Young suddenly wants out despite having years left on his contract? What happens if Devin Booker can't stand the downsides of playing in a small market?
As Harden proved, there's always a way out.