HOUSTON – James Harden has grown to understand how the duties of a franchise player expand beyond the court, how a year-round organizational partnership comes with a superstar’s responsibility. From managing the locker room to leadership to free-agent recruiting, Harden has slowly, surely begun to wrap his arms around it all.
For Harden, the initial commitment in July was this: agree to a short-term raise and an additional contractual year through 2019 with a contract renegotiation. Now, the franchise-deflating acrimony of his relationship with Dwight Howard is gone, and a new coach, a new investment of free-agent shooters surround him.
“I have made the sacrifice that I want to do whatever it takes to win, so it’s one of the reasons why I didn’t go to the Olympics this summer,” Harden told The Vertical. “It was one of the toughest decisions that I’ve ever made in my life. For my legacy here in Houston and in the NBA, I thought it was important.”
Two years ago, the Rockets reached the Western Conference finals, catapulting Harden to No. 2 in the MVP voting. A year ago, Harden had an even better individual season – only to find it lost amid the turmoil of a fired coach, locker-room dysfunction and underachievement.
Harden’s sitting inside the Rockets players’ lounge in the Toyota Center – awaiting the start of a training-camp practice – and the conversation is turning to that nebulous place between perception and reality. If some still want to judge Harden on those five-minute YouTube compilations of his worst moments – those defensive laugh tracks – he understands that he’s delivered them the content to judge him harshly. He won’t tell you that it isn’t embarrassing, only that he’s determined to make those moments become rarer and rarer. He knows this, though: Every night, no one has to go searching for the franchise star of the Houston Rockets. He’s on the floor, ball in his hands.
As franchise players go, he fits the most important criteria: He’s always available, always balling. Across the past two seasons, Harden has played 185 out of 186 regular-season and playoff games, including 38.1 minutes per game in 2015-16.
“You can say [the perception] is frustrating, or you can look at it and say, ‘OK, what if I play 65 games and miss 17 games. Play 32 minutes a game. And look like the best player ever.’ I wish I could, but in this instance, I’m here to play and do what I do.
“We don’t have … listen, I can’t sit out games. My teammates, my coaches, this organization needs me on that floor.”
New Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni is running the point through Harden, believing that Harden’s 7.5 assists per game last season could become 11 or 12. In Harden’s mind, yes, he knows that he could probably lighten his games and minutes burden, sparing himself some of those viral episodes. To Harden, hanging 82 games a season on the board matters to him. It matters a lot.
“It means everything,” Harden told The Vertical. “I’ve been playing basketball since I was a little kid. Just for me to be on the court every day … it’s important to me.
“You’ve got a lot of guys taking nights off. My body is stable, so I play a lot of minutes. I’m always on the court. I’ve got to do so much. I’m not complaining about it. I’m not crying about it. It is what it is. I’m taking full responsibility of it. But I’ve got to figure out how to be most effective in those minutes.”
In the end, this is why the Harden-D’Antoni relationship has to be at the core of the Rockets’ season. For D’Antoni’s system to flourish, it needs Harden to be the engine. Looking back in Los Angeles and New York, D’Antoni has told The Vertical that he could’ve been more proactive in building stronger bonds with star players Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. He promised himself – and Rockets management – that wouldn’t happen with Harden.
And Harden knows this too: As much as D’Antoni needs him, he needs D’Antoni. Together, they have to get this right. Together, they have to elevate a franchise.
“Our communication has been strong,” Harden told The Vertical. “I want to learn. I want to figure it out. Me calling him, texting him, going into his office, that’s happened already several times. My pride is definitely to the side. If I’ve got a problem – if I’ve got a question – I’m going to talk to him about it.”
Out of a disappointing Rockets season, out of a summer of renewed commitment, Harden’s mind is here: What are the responsibilities of a franchise star? What’s my burden? In the end, he has to figure it out because that’s how they judge greatness in the NBA. He has been thinking a lot about it this summer, and knows this: He can’t tell everyone; only show them.
“Obviously you’ve got to be great on the court,” Harden told The Vertical. “You’ve got to put the work in. You’ve got to make people follow you. Off the court, you’ve got let them know that you’re here and willing to do whatever it takes, whether it’s recruiting players, sacrificing individuals stats or whatever it is.
“I want to do whatever it takes to win.”
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