Paul went to Rockets management and demanded a trade, and Harden issued a “him or me” edict following the Rockets’ second-round loss to the Golden State Warriors, sources said.
The backcourt mates went nearly two months without speaking to each other during the season, sources said, creating a tenuous environment for teammates and everyone involved with the franchise.
Harden hasn’t returned Paul’s repeated attempts at communicating this offseason, sources said, after a year in which the pair repeatedly got under each other’s skin with petty acts in practices and games.
Paul has been known to clash with teammates during his career, most notably with the Los Angeles Clippers before being traded to Houston in the summer of 2017. Up until this season, his production ranked among the best at his position in NBA history, but he’s had to curtail his style while acclimating to Harden’s pace.
“There’s no respect at all, on either side,” a source told Yahoo Sports. “They need to get away from one another. Chris doesn’t respect James’ standing in the league, and James doesn’t respect the work Chris has put in to this point.”
Paul’s injury-related absences and grating personality have annoyed Harden, sources said.
If not for Paul’s hamstring injury in the 2018 Western Conference finals, the Rockets might have dethroned the then-champion Golden State Warriors instead of losing in seven games. Paul then signed a four-year, $160 million deal that owner Tillman Fertitta has complained about ever since, sources said, and Paul’s subsequent injury-riddled season — he played 58 regular-season games for the second consecutive year — created even more frustration.
Paul’s production also has fallen off as he shot a career-low 41.9 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from 3-point range, his lowest mark since 2012-13.
Harden’s ball-dominant style and unwillingness to give others like Paul space to operate have grated on Paul, leading to the nine-time All-Star issuing his trade demand to Rockets general manager Daryl Morey after the season.
Sources said Paul would curse at head coach Mike D’Antoni about the offense bogging down after Harden would ask to come into the game to join the second unit, with Paul heading to the bench.
“It can’t be fixed,” another league source told Yahoo Sports about the Harden-Paul partnership.
The situation is indeed bad, a source said, and the players are frustrated with the system and surprised that D'Antoni trusts Harden so much that he allows such leeway on the court.
Morey has been shopping Paul and others in an attempt to revamp the roster, but Paul’s contract, which calls for him to earn $38.5 million, $41.3 million and $44.2 million the next three seasons, is hard for other teams to swallow.
The Rockets have been at the center of controversy the past several weeks, from Fertitta’s contract standoff with D’Antoni, to coaching staff turnover, to accusations of him demanding the team get under the luxury-tax threshold despite pursuing a championship.
With the Warriors’ present and future in doubt because of injuries to free agents Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, it would seem like the perfect opportunity for the Rockets to move forward, but Paul has made it known he’d like to play elsewhere.
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