The fuse of the Rockets has been lit
“They might end up as the worst team in the league.”
BY HENRY ABBOTT
James Harden is an MVP candidate in his prime. Christian Wood is an emerging big man. John Wall reportedly looks amazing in workouts. Stephen Silas is a likable coach. Rafael Stone and his deputy, Eli Witus, are brilliant. Real Plus-Minus picked the Rockets to finish third in the West. It all looks good on paper.
But this isn’t fantasy basketball and the Rockets don’t exist on paper. In fact, they are a bottle rocket with a fuse that was lit a long time ago. It’ll all blow up soon—in the words of seven well-placed sources who have talked to TrueHoop over the last few weeks.
Organizations can be run many different kinds of ways—probably none is perfect. Once in a while, though, they explode—like the law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf. It won awards, made millions, had clients with names like AIG, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, and Disney. It seemed to all the world to be fine and then one day in 2012, as documented by James B. Stewart in the New Yorker, a law website published a story saying several partners had pressed the district attorney to bring criminal charges against the firm’s co-chairman “for embezzlement, wire fraud, mail fraud and other criminal activity.”
Quickly it became clear that under the hood, things had been quietly screwed up for a long time. Here’s where it gets to be a bit like the Rockets. Law firms had stodgy traditions, especially in the tradition of paying all partners more or less equally. But Stephen Davis, who ran LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, didn’t care much for tradition. Instead, he threw in with a different approach: They would make deal after deal to bring in rainmakers. It worked, in some regards. They got some superstars and, for a time, seemed to be real innovators. Stewart’s New Yorker story (with the subhead, “How a top legal firm destroyed itself”) includes:
The firm embodied a business strategy that has begun to supplant the traditional partnership values of loyalty and collegiality with an insistence upon expansion: by merging with another firm (and a different culture) or by offering unwieldy financial packages to lure partners from rival institutions.
Over time, though, there seemed to be little holding the firm together. Factions formed. The compensation committee enraged different people in different ways. Partners nabbed clients from each other. There was some exciting subterfuge. One partner was enraged that another was reading his emails. The snooping executive—Stephen DiCarmine—had his cousin imprisoned for running the Bonanno crime family. As things soured, the biggest money makers in the firm drummed up competing offers and demanded ever-more-outlandish compensation. The firm tried many things to survive, including a merger with the prestigious Dewey Ballantine. (A firm with all kinds of sports connections, especially in the career of Jeffrey Kessler, who has represented the NBA Players Association in the lockout, Latrell Sprewell, Michael Vick, Caster Semenya, Tom Brady, and the US Women’s National Soccer Team.)
It became difficult to find anyone who wanted to be there. A firm built on transactions struggled with relationships. “As far as I am concerned,” Davis reportedly said at an annual partner’s meeting, “if it is only money that holds a firm and its partners together, then there is really no glue at all.”
The glue that held the Rockets together has been drying and cracking for years.
The Rockets made it to the Western conference finals, where they lost to the Warriors but seemed destined for great things. (The Rockets have a knack for being eliminated by the team on its way to the title, having managed it three times in five years.) James Harden was living in Los Angeles, dating a Kardashian, and reportedly showed up to training camp out of shape. The Rockets had high expectations, but struggled out of the gate—and soon fired coach Kevin McHale.
People who worked for the Rockets were almost certain the interim would be one of McHale’s associate head coaches, Chris Finch. Morey’s front office had once pressured Rick Adelman to elevate Finch to lead assistant. Adelman refused, but Finch later got the gig under McHale.
What exactly happened is open to debate, but what’s not is that the team’s then-general counsel, and now GM, Rafael Stone, became a forceful figure in the process, and by the end, J.B. Bickerstaff won the interim job. Two former Rockets employees brought up this story as an example of why the Rockets would not be a good place to work, because they are wary of Stone, and how decisions are made.
The Rockets ended the season in disappointment, just 41-41, barely scraping into the playoffs and losing to the Warriors in the first round.
(Finch, meanwhile, moved on first to the Nuggets, then the Pelicans, and now works for Nick Nurse in Toronto. They go way back: Nurse once assisted Finch as head coach of Great Britain’s team, and replaced Finch at Rio Grande Valley when Finch was called up to the Rockets.)
Mike D’Antoni became coach, the team went on to win 55 games before losing to the Spurs in the second round.
The Rockets seemed to be moving in the right direction. The offense was reorganized with Harden on the ball full-time. It worked. He went from a career-high 7 assists per game to more than 11. His scoring also went up, as did win totals. Harden signed a massive contract extension, and the team made a huge trade for Chris Paul.
D’Antoni had signed a three year-contract, with a team option for the fourth year. Governor Leslie Alexander reportedly signaled he’d pick up the fourth-year option on D’Antoni’s contract. But then Alexander sold the team to Tilman Fertitta, who would make no such promise.
The game of NBA basketball is changing league-wide, in ways that have been driven in no small part by Morey and D’Antoni. In the new world, players, including big men, who can defend all over the court and shoot 3s are at a premium. Morey identified Raptors free agent P.J. Tucker as someone who could matter to the Rockets’ future, and gave him $8 million a year, for four years.
Morey, to his credit, had identified a bargain player—it’s at the core of the job. But every year since, Tucker has proved to be among the best in the league at a position that has become increasingly essential. Al Horford makes $28 million for a similar skillset. Jerami Grant makes $20 million, Aaron Gordon $18 million, Gorgui Dieng $17 million, Marcus Morris $15 million—the list goes on.
At the moment of trading for Chris Paul, Morey—oddly—declared to reporters that part of the reason to get stars like Harden and CP3 is that it would attract free agents who might agree to play for less than they could get elsewhere. Players are attuned to comments like that.
Fertitta was making his presence known in all kinds of ways. Importantly, Alexander’s side of the sale process had been led by the team’s president, Tad Brown, and general counsel, Rafael Stone. As Michael Hardy of Texas Monthly has detailed, Fertitta emerged as the victorious bidder, but not clearly the highest one. There was a lot of dealmaking and convincing first to emerge as the pick, and then to close the deal—which reportedly required putting up $100 million in earnest money and raising money through a bond issue.
Most NBA teams function like monarchies, with all the palace intrigue of The Crown. Various figures jostle and backstab in the hunt for the billionaire’s attention. By the end of the process, to many Rockets’ staffers, it became clear that Brown and Stone had entered Fertitta’s good graces, which is no small thing.
This effectively moved everyone else down a few spots, leading to more than a little uncertainty. A team that had been centered around Morey and D’Antoni now had less clear underpinnings, especially as Fertitta began talking in public.
The Rockets went on to win 65 games. Even with Chris Paul out injured, the Rockets almost made the Finals. They lost Game 7 of the Western conference finals in a heartbreaker to the Warriors—who would sweep the Cavaliers in the Finals. It’s easy to imagine that, healthy, the Rockets could have won a title. Maybe nothing needed to change.
In the hallway after the season-ending loss, Fertitta rattled many. First, he made a classic billionaire mistake by suggesting in public that he, a restaurant magnate born into money, had much to teach the full-time professional basketball experts he employed, most of whom had defied incredible odds to get where they were. Fertitta also conspicuously praised only a few players, but not the coach or GM, saying “I have five great starters. They’re all great. I love all five of my starters.” He made clear that lessons he learned from his restaurant empire would help in basketball. “I’m a fighter. That’s my culture. The longer I own this team the more they’re going to pick up my culture.”
D’Antoni pioneered an offense that has infused the NBA—perhaps no team better than the Warriors who had just beat the Rockets—with a belief in the power of the 3-pointer. It felt pointed when Fertitta says “it’s not let’s make a few shots and win. It’s step on their throats. We will pick up a few Tilmanisms along the way.”
Meanwhile, Tucker emerged as a major force on the team. He was not only one of those five starters, but he led all players in minutes in Game 7, as the linchpin of a Rockets defense that almost contained the uncontainable, fully empowered Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant Warriors.
It was already clear Tucker was worth more than his $8 million salary. One source says the discussions were routine: “every year they promised to pay P.J. They were never going to pay P.J.”
LeBron James was in play, and the Rockets were discussed as a possible destination. According to the Athletic’s Kelly Iko and Sam Amick:
D’Antoni believed the reason the Rockets hadn’t picked up his option, in large part was because they were holding out hope of landing James in free agency. Had that happened, D’Antoni believed they wanted the flexibility to change coaches if James came their way and preferred a different voice. Rockets officials deny that this was the case.
D’Antoni remained in contract limbo; his agent Warren LeGarie told reporters the situation had gone “astray.” There was little trust. For a period, it looked like the team and coach would part ways.
Daryl Morey flew to D’Antoni’s offseason home in West Virginia to smooth things over, which went well enough—but under Fertitta, it wasn’t at all certain the coach and his salary were Morey’s decisions to make.
In a style reminiscent of Donald Trump, to whom he has been a major contributor, Fertitta exerted forceful but bizarre influence on the proceedings. ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reports:
After the previous talks ended, Fertitta told reporters during a hastily arranged media availability that the offer to D'Antoni was a one-year extension with a $5 million base salary plus $4 million in incentives for advancing in the playoffs.
However, the original offer included only $2.5 million in guaranteed money ...
Around the NBA, it was widely assumed this would be D’Antoni’s swan song with the Rockets—which proved true.
Soon, the same was true of Morey. Key NBA business partners in China grew irate over a tweet from Morey in support of protestors in Hong Kong. There was immense business pressure to fire Morey immediately—the fallout was said to cost the league hundreds of millions in lost revenue. Within the Rockets, there were—TrueHoop sources say—discussions about terminating Morey for cause.
However, there was also grave concern that if Morey were fired, the league would appear to be taking orders from China. Vice President Mike Pence said, in a speech, that the NBA was “acting like a wholly owned subsidiary” of China. Commissioner Adam Silver and others got involved; Morey hung on to his job for at least a while longer.
The Athletic’s Kelly Iko, Sam Amick, and Shams Charania reported that many Rockets felt bruised by the way the team was being managed, which came up in a team-meeting.
During the January locker room meeting following a home loss to Portland, Westbrook, who was leading the meeting, went around the room indicating what was wrong and what each player needed to do to fix the losing streak, starting with himself, sources said. When it came to Harden, however, he wasn’t as receptive to criticism as other teammates, sources said.
One example cited was the case of Trevor Ariza, who left the team in 2018 in search of more money, but also more respect, sources said. The Rockets attempted to bring him back down the line but Ariza, sources said, was seeking an apology that never came.
February 5, 2020
In a bold bet on the preferred style of D’Antoni and Morey, the Rockets traded away their starting center, Clint Capela, for multi-position defender and 3-point shooter Robert Covington. It’s unprecedented for a contending team with championship aspirations and a star in his prime to make this kind of gamble. It was a curious move, with many angles.
But there was a certain logic to it: If it worked—if the Rockets had a great playoff run—Morey and D’Antoni might restore some shine in Fertitta’s eyes.
The cost was upsetting to many Rockets staffers, who saw the move as too radical. “There were, profoundly, two camps,” says one source.
February 6, 2020
Rockets staffers who want to know what Tilman Fertitta is thinking make a point of tuning in to Stephen A. Smith on ESPN. They suspect Stephen A., who has often had Fertitta as a guest (and fawns over him more than anyone else in the media) is Fertitta’s mouthpiece. On February 6, Stephen A. sent strong signals that A) he was close enough to Fertitta to speak for him, and B) Fertitta had little confidence in D’Antoni and Morey.
This is a guy that I’ve spoken to on many occasions over the last year, year and a half. He is, personality wise, the closest thing I’ve seen to George Steinbrenner, God rest his soul. … The man is not playing. … D’Antoni is on the clock. Daryl Morey might be too. … Don’t think for one second that [Fertitta] supports this move.
May 18, 2020
Fertitta flew to Washington for a meeting with Donald Trump and staff, much of which is on video. He was making a play for COVID relief funds for large restaurant chains. But the China/Morey flap came up, and Fertitta made cryptic comments about Morey’s job status:
Trump: What ever happened to him, by the way? Is he still working for you? He must be pretty good.
Fertitta: Yes, he is. It’s a trick question, but he is.
July 1, 2020
NBA players reported to their home cities for the first phase of testing and training camp before the Orlando bubble restart at the start of the month. Every player was tested every day.
Russell Westbrook flew from Los Angeles where he lives with a multi-generational family and, sources say, he took the pandemic very seriously. Evidently, he arrived passing every test.
But there was a problem: In Texas, the protocols were nothing like as stringent. Restaurants and most businesses were open for indoor business, for much of the Spring bars were too. Masks weren’t ubiquitous, protocols not as rigorous. Sources say Westbrook told the team he was disappointed in their efforts to keep the team COVID free.
July 13, 2020
Russell Westbrook said on social media that he tested positive for COVID, with a timeline that implied he was correct to worry about COVID in Houston. In posts that have since been deleted, he included the message “mask up.”
The virus caused him to miss weeks of training camp and he went on to have a sub-par playoffs. Sources say that Westbrook’s trust in the organization would never recover.
September 11, 2020
The N.B.A. announced Friday that Danuel House Jr., a reserve forward for the Houston Rockets, had breached the league’s health and safety protocols by inviting an unauthorized guest to his hotel room and that he would be leaving the Walt Disney World campus, where the league has made a major investment to finish out its season inside its so-called bubble.
House did not play for the Rockets in Games 3 and 4 of their Western Conference semifinal series against the Los Angeles Lakers this week as the league conducted its investigation. The N.B.A. concluded that the guest, who was not identified by the league, had spent “multiple hours” in House’s hotel room at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa on Tuesday, in direct violation of league rules. The league has stringent policies about who can be on campus — or even interact with the players — as it seeks to insulate itself from the coronavirus pandemic.
On the one hand, this was the simplest event ever: Danuel House Jr. broke the bubble’s rules and got caught.
But the way it went down ended up upsetting every Rocket.
When he first got in trouble, House told a story that he had done nothing wrong. Sources say he claimed it was a misunderstanding and that, in fact, it was his teammate Tyson Chandler who had done whatever House was being accused of. Sources say Chandler—a venerable, highly respected veteran who was enduring the hardship of the bubble despite no playing time—was deeply trusted by his teammates. Chandler was outraged.
The confusion forced an investigation as the playoffs continued without House. The Rockets had won the first game of the series, but then lost the second, and third as the House drama unfolded.
Throughout the series, D’Antoni used a very short bench. House was one of only seven players to see significant time. Now they were down to six, who were getting exhausted.
What House hadn’t counted on, was that the NBA hotels at Disney were wired up with cameras and sensors. Before long, sources say, it was undeniable that House, himself, had broken the rules. And it was House who had tried, clumsily, to cover his tracks by blaming a teammate. House didn’t play again in the bubble. The Rockets ended their season with four straight losses and more than a little anger.
A few weeks later, a TrueHoop source saw House and Harden shooting around. House tried to greet Harden. Harden refused to even acknowledge him.
Another source told me many players see it as an affront that House is still on the team and in training camp right now.
September 12, 2020
The Rockets were eliminated from the playoffs by the Lakers in Game 5. In a Zoom conference with reporters, D’Antoni’s trademark affability cracked when a reporter asked if a team playing “small ball”—a roster like the one that D’Antoni pioneered and the Rockets bet on with the Capela trade—could win a title.
“Ask the Lakers,” he snapped, “that’s what they beat us with.”
September 13, 2020
The next day both D’Antoni and Morey sent word to Fertitta that they wouldn’t be back, although news of Morey’s departure would take a month to become public.
September 17, 2020
Monte McNair, a key Morey deputy, left the Rockets for a job as GM of the Sacramento Kings. If the Rockets had been divided over Capela vs. Covington, tradition vs. innovation, small vs. big—McNair was seen as being on team Robert Covington.
With D’Antoni and McNair out, and rumblings about Morey, one former Rockets employee says, “it was clear the other side was in charge, and now Robert Covington would be gone, P.J. Tucker would want out, a lot of people.”
October 15, 2020
Morey and Fertitta agreed Morey would be stepping down, and would be replaced by Rafael Stone.
Sources with the Rockets worry who is left at the organization with the respect of players like Harden.
In a follow-up interview with Fertitta and Morey, Fertitta talked about how deep the bench was under Morey—an apparent allusion to Stone and Witus, now that McNair was gone. Morey also mentioned “Patrick” being part of the process, in reference to Fertitta’s son, who is said to be close to Stone, and playing an increasingly important role.
November 16, 2020
The bold Robert Covington experiment ended in a trade with the Blazers that brought back another player who is reportedly fed up with the Rockets (and reportedly seeking an apology) Trevor Ariza, who was then traded again.
The roster shuffling eventually resulted in young big man Christian Wood, restoring much of the basketball thinking before the Covington trade—to pair Harden with a big man, as the Rockets once did with Dwight Howard.
Stephen Silas was announced as head coach. The many different Rockets bigwigs—Fertitta, Harden, Westbrook, Stone—had varied notions of who should coach. Fertitta was talked out of Jeff Van Gundy who was seen as a tough fit with Harden and Westbrook. Harden reportedly wanted Lue. Stone is close with John Lucas.
Stephen Silas—who one source called “just the nicest guy”—emerged as the compromise. Morey had long been a fan. Silas had briefly been a head coach in Charlotte, filling in when Steve Clifford missed several games in the 2017-2018 season. The feedback from those who had been there at the time was a question about his ability to take charge of strong personalities. One source sees confirmation of this in Harden’s calculation that he didn’t need to arrive at training camp on time.
Much has happened to erode employees’ trust in the organization, including signs of belt-tightening. Fertitta earned a certain reputation with the staff years ago when he made them stay in his casino hotel in old Vegas for summer league, while most teams—and a few select executives like Stone and Brown—stayed in high-end hotels on the strip.
Two sources noted that the combination of Silas and Stone saved Fertitta millions—one guessed $8 million—compared to the more accomplished D’Antoni and Morey.
John Hollinger examined the Rockets latest moves and sniffed out “backflips to get out of the luxury tax.”
December 2, 2020
The Rockets traded Russell Westbrook for John Wall—another strong personality for Silas to manage. The degree of difficulty is seen as high for the Rockets’ new coach.
December 5, 2020
Russell Westbrook looks very happy in a Wizards hat, says he stayed in touch with his former coach Scott Brooks “the whole time,” while adding: “I’m very coachable. I’ve never had any issue with any coach. … I’ll just be all ears again.”
December 7, 2020
James Harden was absent from the first days of training camp, and reportedly open to trades with Morey’s team and Kevin Durant’s team. His mom took to social media to battle with his critics, saying that her son gives 210 percent effort, and just wants to win.
No glue at all
Tucker was recently asked about his salary, and replied “next question.” This is how you lose the trust of arguably the team’s best-liked player.
That’s the theme of the Rockets. Pessimism. One source said “they might end up as the worst team in the league.” Another made a joke about the Rockets falling off the map—which, get it?—would prove that Kyrie Irving had been right when he said the world was flat. No one can imagine a free agent wanting to play there. It’s hard to find anyone who expects great things.
The knee jerk thought is to trade Harden away for young prospects and then tank. But they can’t, because they don’t own the rights to their own pick in the upcoming draft—Morey gave the Thunder the right to swap picks this year as part of his deal for Chris Paul. Win-now strategies are only good if you win.
The conversation is already underway about who will be the coach after Silas and the GM after Stone.
As Dewey & LeBoeuf fell apart, the leader said that “if it is only money that holds a firm and its partners together, then there is really no glue at all.” And then the whole thing fell apart.
A footnote with a coincidence: Rafael Stone’s first job, after graduating from Stanford Law School in 1997, was at Dewey Ballantine. He made partner at the young age of 32. He left for the Rockets in 2005, before the merger that made Dewey & LeBoeuf and the drama that followed. But in the big picture: the man running the Rockets has seen shows like this before.
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