It would be so easy for James Harden to fix this. So simple.
Reach out. Speak up. Be a true leader and bridge the divide.
One of the main reasons that Chris Paul’s name rings out — on the hardwood, in national TV commercials, across this sports country — is because he can be so powerful when he brings people together. Paul also possesses the hard inner fire and killer instinct the Harden-led Rockets always have lacked when it really matters.
This is a critical time for Houston’s NBA team. The championship window is clearly closing. The Western Conference is wide open and for the taking, but the Rockets have spent the last six weeks engulfed by drama, finger-pointing and rumor-filled frustration.
Harden will turn 30 in August and is entering his 11th NBA campaign. Paul just hit 34. After 24 combined seasons and almost 2,000 games played, both are missing the same elusive thing: A ring.
Both must remember what is at stake before their careers and basketball legacies are defined more by inner division than a unifying championship.
I will tell you this right now: The schism between Harden and Paul is real.
That doesn’t mean the break can’t be repaired. And, no, it’s not as bad as it got with silly Dwight Howard versus serious Harden not that long ago. And, yes, Golden State has spent entire seasons dealing with inner battles and power struggles, and the Warriors still made the NBA Finals five consecutive years.
The Warriors also have three rings since 2015. Kawhi Leonard just carried Toronto to its first championship by constantly sacrificing and uniting, not dividing, the Raptors. LeBron James’ best teams often thrived on the edge of chaos, but The King also was great enough to lift up a franchise and city by himself — and we all know James had a ton of help.
End drama for sake of dream
Paul obviously cannot do it alone at this point in his career.
Harden might privately think he can and believe he really doesn’t need anyone. That he’s so far above it all — athletic talent, life vision, Houston swagger, California cool — he can’t be bothered with messy, little things that fall beneath the feet of an MVP.
But if the Rockets are really telling the truth when they insist that Paul isn’t going anywhere — maybe would trade him if they could; currently can’t because of an untradeable contract — it’s on the two men making a combined $76.6 million next season to end the drama and bring their team back together.
Harden could fix much of what has been breaking by using the power of his voice. But the still-mysterious face of the Rockets has rarely taken a strong stand in public. While Toyota Center smokes, The Beard coolly hangs back in the shadows.
Does Paul even want to be a Rocket? That season- and team-altering question recently trumped the Rockets’ lingering Mike D’Antoni impasse, which also still hasn’t been officially resolved.
As personally complex and multi-layered as this all is — power, egos, brands, personas, basketball futures — it really shouldn’t be that hard.
Harden is one of the most powerful and well-paid athletes in the world. The same for Paul.
Make a couple calls. Remove all the outside voices and in-betweeners. Find a private, isolated place. Open the door, close the door and say what needs to be said.
Between two men, two superstars and two Rockets whose best shot at winning a world title next season is by standing together, not falling apart.
Maybe in Los Angeles this weekend? Paul is scheduled to participate Sunday in a “Go Hoop Day” clinic at the Nipsey Hussle Memorial Basketball Court in the Crenshaw neighborhood. Monday, Harden is a finalist (again) for the NBA’s MVP honor, which will be handed out during the league’s annual awards show in nearby Santa Monica, Calif.
It could be the perfect time for an instantly viral Instagram post. The Beard and CP3, locking arms and smiling wide. Maybe even longtime general manager Daryl Morey hovering in the background, publicly grinning through his still-unshaven playoff beard and privately breathing a tremendous sigh of relief.
Whewwwww. That drama is over.
James and Chris: Really great seeing you guys. Seriously. I knew it was nothing — tried to tell everyone and no one believed me. Now … can you help me convince Jimmy Butler to join us?
As of Saturday evening, no contract extension was expected between a team that could exit this summer as a leading NBA Finals contender and a coach with a sparkling 173-73 record in Houston. But this is still the Rockets’ best bet for the team’s first world title since 1995: Harden, Paul and D’Antoni, reunited and back together on the same court.
Include coach in dialogue
Harden has improved and improved, and is now a world beyond his Oklahoma City self. I still wish the Rockets pushed him harder on the hardwood. Settle less, set up more. Replay Leonard’s recent playoff run and study the highly efficient, full-court dedication of a champion.
Paul can hint at necessary changes all he wants. The nine-time All-Star must stay healthy for a full season to make a full impact, and he declined to attack too often last season. He’s still too good to be a passive bystander.
D’Antoni has constantly evolved during 15 seasons with five teams. The Rockets already need the best coaching year of his career, months before a new campaign begins.
If it all works, it will start with private conversations.
Harden and Paul. D’Antoni and Harden. D’Antoni and Paul.
Then all three, together.
Then the Rockets, following the lead of the three men who’ve spent the last six weeks in the middle of a weird national reality show.
Two proud, highly competitive stars. One cool but fiery coach. They all need each other if they’re all going to win a championship for the first time.
But, first, Harden and Paul must end the silence and bridge their divide.