Mike D’Antoni announced his departure on the plane ride back to Houston, Daryl Morey quit a few days later, Rafael Stone was named general manager, Stephen Silas was hired as head coach, Russell Westbrook and James Harden hated each other, both players asked for trades, Robert Covington was traded, Christian Wood was signed in free agency, Russ was traded for John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins signed, and Harden turned down the richest annual average contract extension in NBA history to prove that he really wanted out of Houston. Oh, and P.J. Tucker is mad about not getting an extension and Danuel House Jr. apologized for ruining Houston’s playoff chances in the bubble.
One truncated preseason later (that included Chris Clemons tearing his Achilles), the awkwardness is still readily apparent in Houston. One of the best players on the planet, with two years left on his contract, still does not want to be in town. The Rockets have made it clear that they will not trade Harden for pennies on the dollar, and Stone knows that any Harden trade will be his legacy for a long time. So he’s not budging. Neither will Harden. There’s less compromise here than in Congress.
There’s a brand new coach and a couple of players (Wall and Cousins) who see this as a golden opportunity to prove themselves to the NBA. Cousins in particular is signing his third “prove it” deal in the last three years. Injuries took away the first two chances, so this feels like he’s down to the final strike. He’s getting to team up with college buddy Wall, who hasn’t played a professional game in two years due to (deep breath) a heel injury that required surgery but resulted in an infection, only to be followed up by an Achilles tear that occurred when he slipped and fell in his house.
With that backdrop, Houston’s first round playoff opponent from last season comes to Toyota Center looking...different. Billy Donovan is now coaching in Chicago, Chris Paul was traded to Phoenix, Steven Adams was sent to New Orleans, Dennis Schroder was shipped to the Los Angeles Lakers, Danilo Gallinari signed with the Hawks, and Nerlens Noel signed with the Knicks. So if you’re keeping track at home, here’s the deal: the Thunder played eight players in their Game 7 loss to Houston and only three of them are still on the team. That includes Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, Darius Bazley, and Harden Stopper Lu Dort.
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