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Sun setting on Rockets’ James Harden era

Rockets star James Harden

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 12: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets exits the court after their loss to Los Angeles Lakers in Game Five of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on September 12, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Since James Harden requested a trade from the Rockets, both the team and player have been put under the microscope for their cultural issues. And the criticism is valid. Harden’s leadership can be problematic. Houston did enable his worst tendencies.

But don’t lose the plot.

Both Harden and the Rockets have been EXTREMELY good for each other.

In Harden’s eight seasons in Houston, the Rockets are the only NBA team to make the playoffs every year. And they didn’t just sneak in. Houston was the only team to seriously challenge the fully loaded Warriors. Golden State with Kevin Durant went 7-5 against the Rockets in the playoffs and 31-5 against everyone else. Though it fell short, that 2018 Houston team was absolutely championship-caliber. It just happened to exist at the same time as the Warriors.

Harden won an MVP, finished second thrice, third once, fifth once and got votes every year with Houston. He made six All-NBA first teams and an All-NBA third team. Harden also deserved a third-team selection the year he fell short.

Though Harden remains with the Rockets, their productive partnership has unraveled. Houston exits the offseason depleted and in disarray.

The Rockets will probably trade Harden sooner than later. Houston let Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni, who had stronger relationships with Harden, leave. Though the early returns on general manager Rafael Stone and coach Stephen Silas are relatively encouraging, the new regime just doesn’t have enough trust established with Harden to keep him through this crisis.

Even if they somehow convince Harden to rescind his trade request, the Rockets are slipping in their ability to build championship-caliber supporting cast around him. Harden deserves some blame for that. So does Houston owner Tilman Fertitta, whose refusal to pay the luxury tax has hurt the roster. Aging, too.

But the consequences fall primarily on the Rockets.

It’s a shame Houston reached such a dire situation, because in a vacuum, the offseason moves were fairly nice.

The Rockets did well to get a moderately protected first-round pick in the nearly salary-neutral Russell Westbrook-John Wall trade. Wall is a downgrade from Westbrook and fits no better with Harden. But Harden is so ball-dominant, it matters only so much who’s in the backcourt with him.

Houston added another two first-rounders in trading Robert Covington to the Trail Blazers and getting Christian Wood (three years, $41 million) in a sign-and-trade from the Pistons. The deals were connected, as moving Covington gave the Rockets room below the hard cap to add Wood. Wood is a young, talented, productive and versatile center.

The Rockets filled the rest of their roster with cheap signings. DeMarcus Cousins is at least intriguing, though his injuries might have left his athleticism too depleted. Sterling Brown could be ready for a bigger role. Houston fans hope Jae’Sean Tate is an overseas find. No. 52 pick K.J. Martin has athleticism.

Harden could probably lead this group to the playoffs. The extra first-rounders could be useful in restocking the Rockets and keeping them competitive going forward.

But there’s no future for Harden in Houston. The present is wobbly, at best.

That’s a huge drop considering the Rockets were so darned good with Harden.

Offseason grade: D-