'There's too much damn turmoil': An unsettling vibe surrounds these Rockets

ByTim MacMahon ESPN logo
Monday, June 17, 2019

HOUSTON ROCKETS CEO Tad Brown and general manager Daryl Morey flanked owner Tilman Fertitta in a hastily arranged news conference on the afternoon of May 30. Coach Mike D'Antoni was missing, more than 1,000 miles away at his offseason home in West Virginia -- yet still much closer than the Rockets and their coach were to committing to each other beyond the 2019-20 season.

Agent Warren LeGarie had officially ended discussions with the Rockets about a contract extension for D'Antoni earlier that day. Those talks had been more contentious than productive despite the franchise's success with D'Antoni, who is 100 games over .500 during his three-year Houston tenure.

"I think his agent did me a favor, OK," Fertitta said at the media availability, explaining that he now had an easy out if the Rockets had a disappointing year and decided to move on from D'Antoni.

That's typically not the kind of comment made out loud, much less to the media, by an owner who is attempting to defuse drama. Of course, it's also an unusual approach to point out a coach's age and publicly wonder whether he wanted to continue working beyond next season, as Fertitta did when asked by the Houston Chronicle weeks earlier about a potential extension. That prompted the 68-year-old D'Antoni to make it clear that he planned to coach "at a high level for at least another three years."

Nor is it normal NBA business practice to spill the specifics of an offer that wasn't accepted. Fertitta volunteered that the "great extension offer" he made D'Antoni included a $5 million base salary -- below market value for a coach of his stature -- and $1 million in incentives for each playoff round won.

Fertitta failed to mention the buyout language that guaranteed D'Antoni only half of his base salary if the Rockets fired him before the extension began. That was the primary sticking point for D'Antoni, who hoped for a commitment of two more seasons beyond this contract and never seriously considered a half-hearted offer of one more year.

Five days later, Fertitta boarded his private jet along with Morey and flew to West Virginia to smooth things over with D'Antoni. The Rockets' executives returned to Houston believing they had a handshake deal.

"I feel very good about it, and I've always felt good," Fertitta told ESPN the following week. "I'm disappointed that it got talked about in the press, and I'm disappointed I responded in the press."

As an olive branch, Fertitta offered $2 million in incentives tied to playoff advancement in 2019-20, the remaining season on D'Antoni's current contract, if they worked out an extension. He also agreed to remove the buyout language, claiming LeGarie hadn't made it clear it was considered so problematic. D'Antoni told them the reworked offer sounded good, but they needed to iron out the details with LeGarie.

"I have not heard from them since that trip to visit Mike," LeGarie says. "Mike is prepared to coach out his contract."

LeGarie insists that a second year and a higher base salary are musts to sign an extension with the Rockets. He was annoyed D'Antoni, a client for more than three decades, came across as agreeable to a lesser proposal without consulting him.

"We're still working out the details," D'Antoni says. "I'm looking forward to next year and looking forward to making a run at a title."

D'Antoni, who acknowledges he's nonconfrontational to a fault, has told friends he's willing to deal with the indignity of lame-duck status because he believes the Rockets have a legitimate chance to win a championship. All parties involved admit the situation has played out much messier than necessary, but neither LeGarie nor Fertitta seem willing to budge.

"We're excited to have Mike back," Morey says. "He's been a fantastic coach. We're comfortable he's going to be our coach next year and many years into the future."

The fizzled, restarted and fizzled-again extension talks, however, further exposed the cracks that have formed in the foundation of a franchise that has been the only true Western Conference challenge for the Golden State dynasty since Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City to join the Warriors.

There is a disconnect between the front office and D'Antoni, who wasn't in favor of the Rockets' decision to part ways with five members of his coaching staff but didn't fight Morey's recommendations for the changes. There is friction between James Harden and Chris Paul, the franchise's two maximum-salary centerpieces. (Morey has aggressively shopped the Rockets under contract, including Paul and center Clint Capela, in the trade market.) And doubts linger about Fertitta, the inexperienced owner steering the ship through choppy waters while creating waves of his own.

"There's too much damn turmoil," a high-ranking Rockets source told ESPN. "There's some hard feelings right now everywhere."

THE NEWS CONFERENCE featuring Harden and Paul following the Rockets' playoff opener started like so many Houston possessions. Harden got all the action while Paul served as an increasingly frustrated bystander.

The first three questions were directed to Harden, who delivered 29 points and 10 assists in the blowout win despite the Utah Jazz drastically altering their defensive scheme to deal with his off-dribble brilliance. The fourth inquiry addressed both players, but Harden answered as Paul fidgeted with his beard and looked down at the box score in front of him, showing his 14 points and seven assists on fewer than half as many field goal attempts as his backcourt mate.

As the fifth question was being asked, focusing on Utah's unique approach to guarding Harden, Paul looked over at the Rockets' PR chief and then at his teammate. "I'm out of here," Paul muttered, prompting an awkward chuckle and quick palm raise from Harden. A second later, a little more than two minutes into the podium session, Paul got up, patted Harden on his left shoulder and exited stage right.

"Uh," Harden said as the reporter finished the question. Harden raised his eyebrows, shook his head and turned to watch uncomfortably as Paul left the room. Then he took a few moments to collect his thoughts and continued with the news conference.

It played as a humorous moment on social media. But some within the Rockets organization saw it differently -- a public glimpse at the difficult dynamic between the franchise's two stubborn stars, who are at drastically different points in their careers: one a perennial MVP candidate in his prime, the other showing signs of physical decline.

The friction between the two manifested again during the Rockets' playoff finale. Harden and Paul had tense exchanges regarding Harden's ball dominance and Paul's desire to run set plays as the Warriors pulled off a comeback during the fourth quarter of Houston's Game 6 elimination loss, team sources said. Paul made sure he didn't share the microphone with Harden that night, getting dressed faster than usual and taking his turn alone at the podium before Warriors coach Steve Kerr, breaking NBA protocol of coaches conducting their news conferences first.

When Harden took his turn at the podium, he declared, "I know exactly what we need to do. We'll figure it out this summer." He declined to elaborate.

The prevailing belief in Houston -- and hope, certainly -- is that the tension between the Rockets' stars isn't atypical for the NBA and can be managed. And that's a must, given the unlikelihood of getting equal basketball value for the 34-year-old Paul in a trade, considering he is owed $124 million over the final three years of his contract.

"What you have are two highly competitive guys who were very disappointed that we didn't beat Golden State," Morey says. "You've got two high-level competitors who want to figure out how to win at a higher level, as well. Naturally, people who want that so bad, something that's so tough, it's going to create sometimes things that need to be discussed. But it's all, to me, in bounds of any superstars."

The roots of the issues between Harden and Paul, according to team sources, are differences in preferred playing styles and personality.

Harden is arguably the best isolation player in league history, capable of carrying the Rockets to elite offensive efficiency by going one-on-one over and over again. That style also worked well for Paul during the Rockets' 65-win campaign in 2017-18, when Paul ranked behind only Harden in isolation efficiency among high-volume players.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

"Chris wants to coach James," says a source familiar with the stars' dynamic. "James looks at him like, 'You can't even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'"

According to sources, Paul was also frustrated by what he perceived as Harden's tendency to ignore unglamorous details that impact winning -- such as moving when he gives up the ball to help spacing -- and wasn't shy about expressing those concerns.

"It's always a little contentious when you have two alpha dogs," a team source says. "Ask the Golden State Warriors if they've ever had problems between their stars.

"There is contention there, but they know they're tied at the hip, and they want to win. They're smart. They won't let it affect the team. ... That is not the reason Golden State beat us."

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D'Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby -- or demand -- to check back into the game.

The Rockets, who had the league's best record after the All-Star break despite any differences between their stars, were statistically better during the regular season with Paul on the court without Harden (plus-9.2 points per 100 possessions) than with them together (plus-5.7) or Harden without Paul (plus-5.8). However, those numbers are skewed by the fact that solo-CP3 minutes almost always come against the opponent's bench unit.

That trend didn't hold up in the playoffs, when starters' minutes typically get extended. The Rockets were at their best when Harden and Paul played together during the playoffs, posting a plus-6.4 net rating compared to minus-1.5 with only Harden and minus-4.6 with only Paul.

Harden, by nature, tends to avoid conflict but was pushed hard enough to snap back at Paul from time to time. That's what happened during the Rockets' elimination loss, when, team sources said, Harden told Paul he didn't always know best and had talked too much.

"Chris has a personality where he just doesn't let anything go," a team source says. "He just keeps pestering and pestering and pestering and pestering. Sometimes James has had enough -- and not just him. That's what makes [Paul] a winner and also what keeps him from being a big-time winner. He's got to temper that."

None of that concerns Morey, a GM who has always been much more focused on results than relationships. "I feel like we have one of the best duos in the league," Morey says. "They're both first-ballot Hall of Famers. Both years, we were very close to knocking off what I consider to be the best team in the league, and we feel great about them going forward."

FERTITTA, SEATED AT a round table in his posh office in the high-rise attached to his luxurious Post Oak Hotel, scowls and balls up his fists when the subject turns to questions about whether he's fully committed to fund an NBA contender. Or, put much less politely, whether the self-made billionaire is cheap when it comes to running the Rockets.

He's incensed by a rumor that he suggested the Rockets consolidate to one bus for road games to cut costs. NBA teams employ an early bus and a late bus, as well as an equipment truck, and Fertitta is adamant that he never considered having the Rockets stray from that custom. His employees also seated at the table -- son Patrick Fertitta, a director of Fertitta Entertainment, Rockets senior director of media relations Tracey Hughes, Brown and Morey -- also shoot down the rumor and categorize it as laughable.

But Fertitta sure doesn't find it funny.

"When I even hear a mention of trying to save money on a bus or something else stupid, I'm just f---ing furious, because it's so far from the truth. OK?" Fertitta says, his voice rising.

"Did I say I don't want to be in the f---ing tax one out of three years, I don't want to get in the repeater tax? Absolutely. OK, but I would have spent whatever this past year if [Morey] would have said, 'I can get this player, and this guy's going to help us win a championship.'"

Earlier in the meeting, Fertitta proudly pointed toward a model of the practice facility that's in the planning stages. It will be "yuge," as he says in his South Texan drawl, with a price tag in the area of $100 million.

Fertitta also thumbed through drawings for the plans to customize the 767 jet he recently purchased for the Rockets. It will have an athletic training area, lie-flat seating and everything else Rockets executives could think of to make it "the best plane in the NBA," as Morey says. ("And look at that woodwork!" Fertitta adds.)

Brown mentions that the Rockets have made $10 million in upgrades to the Toyota Center since Fertitta, who made his fortune in the restaurant, casino and hotel industries, bought the franchise for an NBA-record $2.2 billion in September 2017.

Fertitta understands, though, that fans and critics really care only about expenses directly related to the Rockets' roster. The Rockets made a series of financially motivated moves to dip under the luxury tax this season, including giving up their 2019 first-round pick and dumping early-season starter James Ennis III at the deadline, raising eyebrows around the NBA.

Fertitta regrets referring to avoiding the tax as a "fluke" but maintains it was surprising that it happened this season. He had given Morey the guideline of avoiding the extremely harsh repeater tax, meaning the Rockets needed to get under the luxury tax once in the three-year span beginning with the 2019-20 season. Morey planned to get under the tax in 2020-21, the third season, but adjusted when he had the opportunity on the day of the trade deadline.

Houston was pushed close to the tax limit last summer by re-signing Paul to a four-year, $160 million max deal and Capela to a relative bargain contract worth $80 million plus incentives over five years. (Fertitta has grumbled about Paul's contract, expressing regret to Rockets staffers and even in front of rival executives, according to league sources.)

The Rockets opted not to use their midlevel exception last summer despite starting forward Trevor Ariza's departure in free agency, filling out their bench with minimum-salary fliers such as Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams and Ennis, all of whom were gone within months.

According to Morey, it wasn't until he pulled off a three-team deal unloading Brandon Knight (at the cost of a first-round pick due to the $15.6 million owed to him in 2019-20) and Marquese Chriss on the day of the deadline that ducking under the tax was even a consideration this season. The final step was a salary-dump trade of Ennis to the Philadelphia 76ers, a move Morey felt comfortable with because Ennis had fallen out of the Rockets' rotation because of his struggles in their defensive scheme.

Ennis ended up being a playoff contributor for the Philadelphia 76ers. In hindsight, Morey acknowledges that Ennis would have been a nice option to have on the Rockets' bench in the postseason, when Danuel House Jr. looked like a deer in headlights.

But Morey insists it was his decision to dip under the tax this season, not a demand from Fertitta, and it was a call made with the belief at the time that it didn't weaken the Rockets' roster.

"I think the focus on the tax is sort of a strange focus," Morey says. "People should focus on: How do you make the best possible team? When that requires us to go in the tax, we're going to do it. Tilman's fully authorized me to do whatever we can to make the team better."

"If we're competing for a championship, I can promise you I don't see how we're not in the tax the next two years," Fertitta says.

Fertitta adds later, "The only reason we weren't in it last year is because people said no." He's referring to the Rockets' unsuccessful attempts to trade for Jimmy Butler and give the pro-rated midlevel exception to buyout market target Wesley Matthews, who prioritized a starting job when he signed with the Indiana Pacers.

Morey is confident the Rockets will sign a "high-quality, rotation player" with their $5.7 million midlevel exception this summer. While he wishes it hadn't become headline fodder, Morey acknowledges that he is aggressively exploring the trade market, considering it business as usual.

And Morey is resolute the Rockets can upgrade their coaching staff this summer regardless of the uncertainty of D'Antoni's contract situation.

That will be particularly challenging in the case of finding a replacement for former associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik, a defensive guru who opted to retire right before training camp last fall in part because he felt he wasn't receiving enough respect from the Rockets' front office, according to league sources. After Houston played turnstile defense during an 11-14 start, Fertitta personally recruited Bzdelik out of retirement with a six-figure raise, and the Rockets ranked second in the league in defensive efficiency after the All-Star break.

The tepid commitment to D'Antoni, the gutting of his coaching staff and the shopping of the starting five, among other factors, have created what could at best be described as an unsettling vibe for a franchise that has won more games over the past few years than any team other than the Warriors.

"There's been some messiness to our current offseason, but we're always going to be in a state of somewhat tension because until we achieve our goals and get where we need to be, we're going to continue to challenge ourselves to get better," Brown says. "That sometimes creates tension. This is just a way for us to continue to get better."

Fertitta stresses the Rockets "are not changing to change" but will continue to seek any competitive edge. He expresses exasperation with the idea that Houston is a franchise in turmoil.

"All I want is to win," Fertitta says, his hands raised.

"I just want to win."

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