The James Harden Trade: A Rockets Fan’s Perspective
I have a confession to make: despite writing for a Brooklyn Nets website, I’m a Houston Rockets fan. I’ve always been a Houston Rockets fan and I’ll (probably) always be a Houston Rockets fan. I grew up watching Steve Francis, and then the Tracy McGrady/Yao Ming years, and then finally got to spend most of my adult life rooting for James Harden.
This whole trade saga has been an emotional rollercoaster. You could feel from the moment that the Rockets were sold by Leslie Alexander to current owner Tilman Fertitta that something bad was brewing under the surface with the franchise. Fertitta has long been known in the Houston area for his interest in local sports teams, and many of us have also long felt that that interest has been a little too self-serving. When Fertitta would flex his muscles to make things happen in the athletic program at the University of Houston, for instance, it always felt just a little off, like so much of what Fertitta was doing was a branding opportunity. I mean, I grew up going to Houston Astros games, where I’d sit in the Fertitta-sponsored Landry’s Crawford Boxes, hoping to catch a home run ball because Fertitta offered gift certificates to his restaurants for catching home runs while sitting in that section.
But enough about Tilman Fertitta. This is about James Harden and the trade that sent Harden to the Brooklyn Nets.
Being A James Harden Fan In Absentia
I’m probably coming at this from a weird perspective because despite growing up in the Houston area and going to the University of Houston for college, I moved away in 2012 before Harden was traded to the Rockets. So while I have a childhood filled with memories of watching the Rockets on the local TV51 channel at my grandmother’s house and the only NBA game I’ve attended was during the height of the McGrady/Yao era, I watched the entire Harden era unfurl through pixelated illegal streams and bar televisions during the playoffs. Because of that, I can’t really speak for how much James Harden meant to Houston itself. I’m too removed from that city now, and even when I go down to visit my family, I just drive straight through the city itself without stopping as I head for the small town an hour south where I grew up.
But what I do know is how James Harden’s time with the Rockets felt to me, a person whose fifth birthday was the same day that the Rockets defeated the Orlando Magic in Game 4 of the 1995 NBA Finals to win the team’s second NBA championship. Those titles came just before I started to be cognizant of the world, so I grew up knowing they happened, but not really knowing they happened, yeah? My first real memories of the Rockets were of the aging team that followed, with their cartoonish logo and the failed Scottie Pippen experiment and Hakeem Olajuwon being traded to the Toronto Raptors. It was Moochie Norris running the point, Kelvin Cato getting paid so much money that there were rap songs about it, and the hope that came when Yao Ming was drafted. But that hope was never fully realized, even after the trade that brought Tracy McGrady to town. McGrady never got the Rockets out of the first round, and he was eventually traded away after he decided he was done with the franchise in a multi-team deal that landed Kevin Martin in Houston.
That deal, of course, was crucial, because Martin was a centerpiece of the trade that ushered in the best era of Rockets basketball in my conscious lifetime: the James Harden trade.
The Harden era in Houston never saw the team win a championship, or make it to the NBA Finals even, but it saw the team play consistently high-level basketball, even if that basketball was sometimes ugly to watch for outsiders. Watching James Harden play was never ugly to me, no matter how many times he barreled into the paint, got whacked by an opponent, and ended up at the free-throw line. Harden was just exploiting the way NBA teams played defense.
And while there was plenty of negative talk about how Harden himself played defense, I was never concerned about that either. He expended so much energy on the offensive end to make Houston run that I could forgive some lapses with perimeter defense. Plus, he was never really as bad as people said he was, and he was also a pretty good post defender, using his strong core to stick to bigger players who were trying to post him up.
For me, seeing the Rockets in a position where they maybe, maybe could win a title if things broke the right way was what mattered. And I’ll maintain until I die that the Golden State Warriors were the only thing keeping Harden from leading a dynasty down in Houston and that the Chris Paul injury during the Western Conference Finals was the only thing that kept the Rockets from breaking the Warriors dynasty that did exist.
The thing about liking Houston sports, though, is that you’re always waiting for the good things that happened to get replaced by something really bad. Outside of the city’s soccer teams — the Dynamo won two titles right after moving to Houston and the Dash won the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup — there’s not much to go off of when it comes to success in Houston sports. The Comets won the first four WNBA titles, but it’s hard to celebrate that after the team folded in 2008. The Astros won a World Series, and then that win was almost immediately spoiled by a cheating scandal. I remember one year the Houston Cougars football team looked like it was going to bust through and make a BCS bowl, but then they got embarrassed in the conference title game.
The point is, the Harden era felt great, but the ending of it felt so expected. It almost mirrored the end of the McGrady era: a star shooting guard demands a trade and the Rockets deal him to a team in New York as part of a multi-team thing that lands Houston a good-but-not-great shooting guard to replace him. The first time, it was Kevin Martin. This time, it’s Victor Oladipo, which does seem like a step up from that first trade.
Harden’s In Brooklyn Now
All this brings us to the current reality: James Harden is a member of the Brooklyn Nets, a team I’ve written about at Nets Republic for three seasons. And that’s…weird.
First off, it’s weird to not have The Beard in a Rockets jersey. I’m 30 years old, which means that essentially my entire 20s were spent watching Harden. Now, a new decade of my life begins and I’m just supposed to…be okay with the fact that James Harden is playing somewhere else?
The other weird thing is the jealousy. All of you Nets fans who read our coverage get to root for James Harden! And while I’ll also be rooting for him still too, I won’t be rooting for him in the same way as the rest of y’all. It’s some strange dissonance. I want him to succeed and his success in Brooklyn likely helps draw in more readers to our site, but I also wish he was succeeding in Houston.
But also also, I’m glad he isn’t part of the Fertitta mess. But also also also I have some serious qualms about how his time in Houston ended. It’s a messy situation.
I’m also dealing with the fact that as a Nets writer, I’d grown to really like Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert, but neither player actually ended up in Houston. When the Harden to Brooklyn trade rumors began, that was a consolation prize for me: I’d get to keep watching and rooting for Brooklyn’s young players.
But hey, I get to keep watching Harden, and I get to bring a lot of Harden knowledge to the table, so there are positives here.
Still, I’m sad, which I know sounds really dumb, but it’s also true. Thinking about how Harden could never quite get the Rockets over the top makes me feel sad. And if he helps lead the Nets to a title, I’ll feel a certain kind of sadness about that too, even if I’ll also be happy for Harden, the Nets, and all the Nets fans I know.