| AP Sports Writer
Houston — Given the chance to address months of speculation that he wants to be traded from the Houston Rockets, James Harden sidestepped questions more deftly than he shakes defenders with his signature step-back.
The disgruntled superstar spoke to the media on Wednesday for the first time since reporting late to camp amid reports that he wants out of Houston. Harden, who made his preseason debut Tuesday night, was asked directly if he wants to be traded.
“Right now, I’m just focused on being here,” he said. “Today was good. Yesterday it felt really good being out there for the first time since the bubble.”
While the rest of the Rockets were in Houston for the start of training camp earlier this month, Harden was photographed at rapper Lil Baby’s birthday party in Atlanta and at a nightclub in Las Vegas.
The Beard was asked what message he was sending to the team by jaunting around the country when he should have been at practice.
“I was just training,” he said.
“The start of the NBA season,” he said.
Reporters continued to press Harden about how being in Atlanta and Vegas could prepare him for the season and he answered: “Just, you know, my personal trainers.”
The exchange was a curious one, especially considering Harden appears to be in worse physical condition than he was during Houston’s last playoff game. Social media went wild with jokes about his apparent weight gain after he was seen in uniform Tuesday night for the first time in months.
Speculation about Harden’s future has put a cloud over the Rockets since they reported for camp and new coach Stephen Silas seems to have grown weary of answering the same questions about his star.
Harden brushed off the suggestion that the trade rumors could be a distraction for the team.
“Since I’ve been here there’s nothing that’s being said about it. … I’m just preparing for the season so that’s all that matters,” he said.
Harden was traded to the Rockets from Oklahoma City in 2012 in a deal orchestrated by former general manager Daryl Morey. Now that Morey is gone to the 76ers, Harden was asked about his relationship with new GM Rafael Stone.
His answer didn’t sound encouraging for those hoping to see Harden stick around.
“We haven’t had a conversation,” he said.
As for Silas, the coach said he doesn’t have a clearer idea of what Harden wants now that he’s back with the team.
“If we exactly knew … where his head was, that I think would be good for everybody,” Silas said. “But we’re dealing in reality which is things change on a day-to-day basis. Things change on a game-by-game basis. And as I said before, my job is to coach this basketball team and make sure that the guys are put in the right position.”
While Harden wouldn’t address his future, he was complimentary of Silas and his staff.
“There’s a lot of changes,” Harden said. “The entire coaching staff, some of the front office, a lot of the players. And this is where we are. So, coach has done an unbelievable job of just communicating with guys and just putting the structure in and getting things going.”
The question is whether Harden will still be a part of the team when they do.
The NBA said that only one new case of coronavirus was found in test results from 549 players taken since Dec. 10.
The league now has reported 57 player positive tests since the week preceding the start of training camps. Of those, 48 came in the first week of testing, followed by eight the following week and now one more.
That means the positive test rate in the league has gone from 8.8%, to 1.5%, to now just under 0.2%.
Those who return a confirmed positive test are isolated until they are cleared in accordance with the policies agreed upon by the league and the National Basketball Players Association.
Giannis Antetokounmpo says he’s staying with the Milwaukee Bucks for at least five more seasons.
“I’m blessed to be a part of the Milwaukee Bucks for the next 5 years,” the two-time reigning MVP posted Tuesday on his social media platforms.
The 26-year-old Antetokounmpo had until Monday to sign the Bucks’ supermax extension offer. If he turned it down, Antetokounmpo could have become a free agent after the upcoming season.
Although Antetokounmpo didn’t announce the terms of his new deal, The Athletic and Stadium reported that he agreed to a five-year contract worth $228 million that includes an opt-out clause in 2025.
“This is my home, this is my city,” Antetokounmpo said in his post. “I’m blessed to be able to be a part of the Milwaukee Bucks for the next 5 years. Let’s make these years count. The show goes on, let’s get it.”
His decision means the Bucks will hang on to their biggest superstar since Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who led Milwaukee to its lone NBA title in 1971 but demanded a trade and was dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975.
The Bucks paid a hefty price to revamp their roster this offseason in an attempt to persuade Antetokounmpo to stay. They dealt away guards Eric Bledsoe and George Hill, first-round draft pick R.J. Hampton and two more first-round selections as part of a package to acquire Jrue Holiday.
They also overhauled their bench by adding Bobby Portis, D.J. Augustin, Torrey Craig and Bryn Forbes. Antetokounmpo called those offseason moves “amazing” without indicating whether he planned to sign the extension.
The Memphis Grizzlies have a talented young core that they are determined to keep together, and they exercised the 2021-22 options for reigning NBA Rookie of the Year Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. (Michigan State), Brandon Clarke and Grayson Allen.
The No. 2 pick overall in 2019 out of Murray State, Morant was the near unanimous pick as top rookie and a unanimous choice for the NBA All-Rookie team. He led the team with 17.8 points per game starting 67 games last season.
The fourth overall pick in 2018, Jackson averaged 15.5 points in 113 starts over two seasons. He was on the 2018-19 NBA All-Rookie team, and Jackson scored 17.4 points a game in his second season while blocking 1.61 shots a game. He scored a career-high 43 points on Dec. 13, 2019, against Milwaukee.
Clarke joined Morant on the NBA All-Rookie first team after averaging 12.1 points and 5.9 rebounds. He shot an NBA rookie-best 61.8% from the floor. Allen shot 40.4% from 3-point range last season in his first with the Grizzlies.
Bamba staying put
The Orlando Magic have exercised the fourth-year team option on center Mo Bamba for the 2021-22 season, the team announced Wednesday.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed, per team policy, but Spotrac reported the deal was valued at $7.57 million.
The Magic clearly are not ready to move on from Bamba, whose progress has been slowed by things beyond his control. By exercising the team option, the Magic show they continue to value the 22-year-old center and remain committed to him.
Bamba has been cleared for contact work and took part in those drills on Wednesday for the first time in training camp, according to a team official. After his bout with COVID-19 in June, Bamba had been held out of contact drills as he worked through some lingering effects the virus had on his conditioning.
Hayward’s injured digit
Hornets forward Gordon Hayward has a fracture at the base of the pinkie finger of his right hand that will cause him to miss at least Thursday’s preseason game in Orlando, Fla.
The injury is not considered serious enough to require surgery. He will be listed as day-to-day. It’s expected Hayward can play whenever he’s comfortable to do so, as far as pain tolerance and performing effectively. Hayward shoots with his right hand.
Hayward suffered the injury in Monday’s home preseason loss to the Toronto Raptors. The Hornets’ statement called this an avulsion fracture, which means a small chunk of bone attached to a tendon or ligament was pulled away from the main part of the bone.
He signed a four-year, $120 million contract and was a major free-agent acquisition for the Hornets. He is expected to be the hub of Charlotte’s offense this season, both as a scorer and facilitator.