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The dilemma of James Harden and the Rockets: The prelude

All good things must come to an end. But for James Harden and the Houston Rockets, a breakup could be more complex than what meets the eye. 

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Houston Rockets v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

It took only one game for the Houston Rockets to realize they had something special in James Harden. On a crisp October night, Harden made his debut for the Rockets in a 105-96 victory over the Detroit Pistons inside the Palace of Auburn Hills. He scored a game-high 37 points (14-25 FG, 4-10 3PT) to go along with a then-career-high 12 assists, 6 rebounds, and 4 steals — becoming the first player in NBA history to record a 30-point double-double in a debut.

By the end of the 2012-13 season, the then 23-year-old prodigy proved he was worth every penny of the five-year $80 million contract extension that caused his jettison from the Oklahoma City Thunder. He became an All-Star, averaging a then career-best 25.9 points while helping the Rockets qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2009.

The future was bright in Houston. Not only did the Rockets discover a star in Harden, but a foundational player who could catapult the organization into championship contention with the right pieces around. A third Larry O’Brien trophy appeared to be in the Rockets’ orbit more than ever.

Eight years later, Harden has met every expectation following his debut against the Pistons — all expect for a championship title. Now 31, with the bulk of his prime behind him, the constant failures could result in Harden departing from Houston.

The Rockets without Harden? What was once a fear following each postseason fail is slowly starting to become a reality. And the possibility of Harden’s eventual departure never seems more certain than today.

According to Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon, Harden — along with Russell Westbrook — has expressed concerns about his future with the organization. Albeit the report did not indicate that Harden has not requested a trade, it appears the team has officially been put on notice.

From creating a dynamic duo with Dwight Howard to micro-ball this past season, Harden has experienced several failed experiments in his endeavor to reach the pinnacle of the NBA. He came close in 2018, but Chris Paul’s injured hamstring followed by 27 missed three-pointers prevented Harden from capping off his MVP season with a championship title.

His most recent experience with Westbrook may go down as the most humiliating attempt, as the nine-time All-Star has reportedly requested a trade after one year of playing in Houston. According to Kelly Iko of The Athletic, Harden remains “locked in” for next season, but at some point, patience has to start wearing thin on the future Hall-Of-Famer.

In hindsight, Harden and the Rockets owe it to each other to give it one more chance before pulling the plug and going their separate ways. After all, it is hard to judge their latest philosophy as a failure in a season that was heavily disrupted by a global pandemic.

However, if Houston elects not to move an “unhappy Harden,” the Rockets risk putting themselves in a position where they could lose leverage when shopping their disgruntled star in the near future.

This coming season could be the final straw for Harden in a Rockets’ jersey. He will be competing with an unproven front office in a conference that will feature the reigning NBA champion (Lakers), a team that is hell bent to continue their dynasty (Warriors), and a championship contender whose window is starting to crack open (Nuggets).

So just reaching the Conference Finals seems like a daunting task within itself. Should the Rockets go ahead and get a jump start on a rebuild by departing from Harden now?

In the coming weeks, “The Dilemma of James Harden and the Houston Rockets” will take an in-depth look at three possible scenarios, ranging from Harden finally capturing that elusive title still draped in the Rockets’ red, to which up-and-coming star Houston should consider pursuing in case of Harden’s potential departure from the Rockets.

The Beard’s uncertain future in Houston is an uncomfortable topic to discuss, but as the author of this three-part series — it’s even more arduous to write. However, the likelihood of witnessing Harden play for another franchise in the coming months has become more realistic than him finishing out his career with the Rockets.