The Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets were all value-driven sports organizations. Until they weren’t.
Rex Ryan and Mickey Callaway are two people with seemingly nothing in common. The brash, bombastic Ryan’s introduction to the media as the Jets’ head coach featured a defiant pledge not to “kiss [the New England Patriots’] rings” and vague threats about his division rival: “I think we already have sent a message to them. So they can read between the lines…They can figure it out.” In training camp he ended an impassioned speech to the team with a rousing “Now let’s go eat a [expletive] snack!” Callaway’s first press conference as Mets manager was straight out of Stuart Smalley: “We’re going to care more about the players than anyone ever has before…Our main concern is to show them that we know this game is difficult and we care about you as a player, a human being and about your personal life…I’m going to love every one of them.”
As much as the two men differed, they share something in common. When things started to go south, so did their proclaimed values. By the end of Ryan’s time in Buffalo, he was an empty shell, a bully exposed as something lesser. Callaway’s most memorable moment in Queens was cursing out a reporter for having the temerity tell him “See you tomorrow,” then justifying his outburst with “Billy Martin punched a reporter one time. It’s just part of the game.”
All of us, no matter our differences, can be pushed outside of ourselves — or closer to our true selves — by the stresses of simply being human. Which brings us to the Houston Rockets, the Philadelphia 76ers, the Brooklyn Nets, and James Edward Harden Jr. When the Houston Rockets traded him to the Brooklyn Nets, three long-running storylines came to an end, each due to the unbearable weight of simply being human.
The Houston Rockets and a new math
Harden, of course, is no ordinary human; it follows that his time in Houston was far from ordinary. The three years before his arrival, the Rockets missed the playoffs. They made the playoffs each of his eight years there, revolutionizing the way the NBA game is played. The Rockets took the brutal simplicity of 3 > 2 to the extreme, eschewing any and all shots that weren’t in the paint or behind the arc. Harden fit that ethos like a glove, winning three straight scoring titles while casting a sorcerer’s array of unstoppable one-on-one spells. The Rockets never could get past the other scoring supernova out west in Golden State, but they gave the greatest dynasty in 15-25 years a better fight than anyone else. If Chris Paul hadn’t injured his hamstring at the end of 2018’s Game 5…alas.
Houston continued to push its dogma to the limit, never suspecting the chickens would come home to roost. The same brutal methodology that led them to bend the game out of recognition led them to almost unheard of strategies. Despite drafting and developing an impactful young big man in Clint Capela, a year and half after giving him a five-year, $90 million contract the Rockets traded him in a deal that brought back Robert Covington, a 6-foot-7, 209-pound small forward they saw as their center. He was actually taller than Houston’s other pivot, P.J. Tucker. After just 22 games in Houston, Covington was shipped to Portland a month before the start of this season. Tucker remains frustrated at his lack of a new deal, particularly in light of the bruising physical sacrifices he’s made for years to help Houston’s mad scientist fever dreams come to life.
Because 3 > 2, because Harden is one of the handful of greatest scorers on this spinning blue marble in space, the Rockets applied their brutal math to their treatment of their superstar — James happy > James unhappy. So the Dwight Howard experiment gave way to the Chris Paul experiment, which lasted two years before becoming the Russell Westbrook experiment, which lasted one year before becoming the John Wall experiment, which lasted six games. When Harden wanted his co-stars gone, Houston obliged, because James happy > James unhappy. When Harden wanted out, Houston became the victim of its own brutal math. Harden unhappy < Harden gone. The divorce had its low points. Harden seemed to be phoning it in at times, both on and off the court. Maskless partying during a worsening pandemic has a way of rubbing many the wrong way.
Still, this was a mundane breakup, as far as motive. When Les Alexander owned the team, Houston was a title contender. Once Tilman Fertitta took over they grew more concerned with the luxury tax than with trophies, letting Trevor Ariza go after playing a key role for the team that nearly knocked off Golden State, trading away a first-round pick to escape Brandon Knight’s contract and cutting James Ennis III. When Harden told a room full of reporters “We’re just not good enough,” he was speaking a truth any fan has known since the Westbrook trade. Fertitta wants to save money. Harden wants to compete for a championship. Sometimes people grow in different directions. It’s simply being human. Harden’s heart wanted something the organization no longer does. After all their charts and calculations, it was the flesh, weak yet insistent, that did Houston in.
The Philadelphia 76ers and a new process
Harden’s recent behaviors may have scared off the 76ers, which would be another instance of the mortal overpowering the math. When Philadelphia began its “process” of rebuilding under Sam Hinkie, the basic formula was clear: the surest path to a title is having multiple superstars, so any chance you get to acquire them, you go for it. That’s how a team ends up with three centers from three straight lotteries: Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid. It’s why they traded up from the third pick in the 2017 draft to the top pick to select Markelle Fultz, and why they later traded for Jimmy Butler despite his tortuous endgame in Minnesota. Once Butler left for Miami, the Sixers were short a star. Embiid is a superstar when healthy; Ben Simmons is like dividing any number by zero — impossible to define or quantify.
With a gaping hole on the wing and the chance to acquire the preeminent perimeter scorer in the world, the organization that spent years defying conventional wisdom, that did whatever it took to acquire stars, was presented with the opportunity to create their brightest combo since Moses Malone joined Julius Erving. And they declined. Like Houston, Philadelphia’s bottom-line mentality was ultimately undone by the predictable unpredictability of the human condition. From Fultz’s mysterious health and shooting woes to Butler wanting out due to dissatisfaction with coach Brett Brown to Embiid’s unpredictable health, to whatever the hell Bryan Colangelo was thinking, to refusing to trade youth and financial flexibility for Harden’s early 30s, the 76ers were forced to confront the mortality of their morals. In the end, the brutal math of superstars > everything else came up short.
The Brooklyn Nets and three shiny new things
Which leads us to Brooklyn, the Ghost of Harden Yet To Come. While he was leading Houston to the verge of the NBA Finals, the Nets were the cute mom-and-pop store around the corner. After years of losing games and losing their lottery picks to Boston as a result of the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade, Brooklyn was deliberate in its roster construction, the third little piggy whose house is made of brick. They talked about player development and culture and doing things the right way. They signed and traded for players other teams cast away, accumulating an intriguing young core of D’Angelo Russell, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. Kenny Atkinson wasn’t sexy, but he drove the little engine that could.
But there’s a reason most high school sweethearts don’t last. The world is a big place, filled with new people who are smarter, more attractive and more promising. The Nets left for campus wearing a promise ring, saw Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving checking them out across the room and dumped that ring in the Gowanus Canal. Development and culture took a back seat to the shortest path between two points, with point A being “NBA obscurity” and point B being “New York City’s first NBA championship in nearly 50 years.”
The Harden trade costs them even more than the KG/Pierce trade did. That they consented to it is a reminder of another basic human condition, one familiar to the purest toddler and any octagenarian: when a desired outcome is in doubt, do whatever it takes to stack the deck in your favor as much as you can. The Nets are still beholden to their culture. Only that culture has shifted from “All animals are equal” to “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others, especially those who can score 50 any given night.” Steve Nash had zero coaching experience, but he looks better behind the wheel of a Ferrari than Atkinson would have.
Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Houston all head into a future whose outcomes they really can’t control or predict. These billion-dollar franchises are children stuck in the backseat asking “Are we there yet?” The Nets are hoping three temperamental geniuses figurer out how to blend into a sum greater than their considerable parts sooner than later. The 76ers are hoping their Hercules stays healthy and their Achilles learns how to shoot or excels so thoroughly at everything else his heel isn’t theirs. The Rockets are hoping there’s life after math, after magic. The true test for each team will be the one Ryan and Callaway failed — when push comes to shove, do their values hold true? Or are they cast aside? That may be the most human question of all.