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Report: Russell Westbrook 'appalled' by Rockets team culture, which revolves around James Harden

Liz Roscher
·3-min read

Between his reported demand for a trade and his training camp hold out, James Harden has headlined all the NBA drama leading into the start of the regular season. But there’s somehow more drama between him and the Houston Rockets lurking just beneath the surface.

ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported on Wednesday that the Rockets have let Harden run the show in Houston, which has led to a “casual culture” on the team. According to MacMahon, Harden’s love of partying in certain cities determines the team’s travel schedule and off days, and his inability to be on time has caused the Rockets to act like “an organized AAU team,” one former staffer said.

While the Rockets hadn’t necessarily viewed this as an issue in the past, those days appear to be gone. The team’s culture, engineered by Harden, may have played a part in driving away Russell Westbrook, who the Rockets recently traded to the Washington Wizards.

Dec 13, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA; Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook (0)  and Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) look on against the Orlando Magic during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
James Harden has been calling the shots on the Rockets, and the team's culture may have played a role in ending Russell Westbrook's time in Houston. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Westbrook ‘appalled’ by Rockets culture

Harden’s power within the Rockets organization goes beyond the team’s travel schedule. Sources told MacMahon that Harden could “call the shots” on personnel moves for the team and coaching staff, and would threaten to demand a trade if the team wouldn’t upgrade the roster.

That’s how Westbrook ended up in Houston. Harden reportedly threatened to demand a trade if the Rockets didn’t trade for Westbrook. Harden got his wish and Westbrook landed in Houston.

It didn’t go well. While there were on-court issues around playing style and the fit between Westbrook and Harden, there were reportedly other issues as well: Westbrook just didn’t mesh with the team’s culture. Westbrook’s old team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, were disciplined and professional, and he was reportedly “appalled” by Houston’s casual culture. Tardiness is a way of life on the Rockets, which Westbrook apparently hates.

On one occasion in the Florida bubble, Harden waited to get his daily COVID-19 testing until just before the Rockets' film session was scheduled to start. When he wasn't on time, Westbrook barked, "Start the film! Start without him!" [Former head coach Mike] D'Antoni explained that they'd just have to start over when Harden arrived, which didn't do much to calm Westbrook.

With the issues both on and off the court, it’s not hard to understand why Westbrook wanted out of Houston.

‘Whatever James wants’

A former Rockets staffer told MacMahon that the culture on the team has essentially been “whatever James wants.” That’s essentially what’s caused all the recent drama with his maskless partying and training camp hold out. For the first time they’re not giving Harden what he wants, which is a trade.

"Yeah, he's going to act up," a former Rockets staffer said.

"He's never heard 'no' before."

According to MacMahon, the Rockets are determined to get a huge package if they’re going to trade their star, even if it takes awhile to do it, and even if Harden is visibly unhappy about it. So if Harden’s not used to hearing “no,” he might want to get accustomed to it pretty quickly.

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