Houston's superstar guard says 'I am the best player in the league' and is out to prove his Rockets squad didn't peak in 2014-15
POSTED: Oct 6, 2015 10:51 AM ET
Rockets star James Harden still believes he should have claimed Kia MVP honors in 2015.
HOUSTON — When the knee injury first flared up a year ago that eventually forced center Dwight Howard to miss exactly half the regular season schedule, there was only one thing for James Harden to do.
When forward Terrence Jones went from nerve inflammation in his leg to the flu to a collapsed lung that kept him sidelined for 49 games, point guard Patrick Beverley tore ligaments in his left wrist in March and forward Donatas Motiejunas needed back surgery in April and both players missed the playoffs, the ask of Harden was the same.
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So after averaging 27.4 points, 7.0 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game while at times solely dragging his Rockets to the Western Conference finals for first time in nearly two decades and it was still not enough to win the 2015 Kia MVP award, Harden has a plan.
"You don't think I can do more?" Harden asks. "Just wait. I'll show you."
The beard mostly covers up the defiant grin that practically dares you to tell him he's already scraping at the ceiling.
"I am the best player in the league. I believe that," he said. "I thought I was last year, too."
There's so many factors. I led the league in total points scored, minutes played. Like I said, I'm not taking anything away from Steph, but I felt I deserved the Most Valuable Player. That stays with me.
– Houston Rockets guard James Harden
That runner-up finish to the Warriors' Stephen Curry is still harder to swallow than a chicken bone.
"I know I was the MVP," Harden said. "That's 100 percent given all the things that happened last season.
"Credit the Golden State Warriors for an unbelievable year. They had an unbelievable team, coaching staff, everything.
"But that award means most valuable to your team. We finished second in the West, which nobody thought we were going to do at the beginning of the year even when everybody was healthy. We were near the top in having the most injuries. We won our division in a division where every single team made the playoffs.
"There's so many factors. I led the league in total points scored, minutes played. Like I said, I'm not taking anything away from Steph, but I felt I deserved the Most Valuable Player. That stays with me."
What also stays with him is the nagging memory of being eliminated in Game 5 of the West finals on a night when Harden shot just 2-for-11 from the field and committed a playoff record 12 turnovers.
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"To be honest, I thought I had more in the tank when I went out onto the court that night," he said. "But it was a long, tiring, beat-down season ... Playing the most [total] minutes in the league, dealing with so many injuries every single day ... It's a wear-and-tear. It's a grind.
"It was so frustrating, because in that Game 5 I turned the ball over 12 times. I pride myself on creating opportunities to score for my team. So those 12 possessions, instead of getting a shot for myself or one of my teammates, I'm giving an extremely talented Golden State offensive team extra possessions. And you just can't do that in the playoffs.
"So that's what my offseason has been all about -- better conditioning and better preparation for this time."
Harden's offseason has also included signing a lucrative endorsement contract with adidas for $200 million, continuing a high-profile relationship with Khloe Kardashian that makes him an A-lister by any measure, practically sprinting up the ladder of celebrity two rungs at a time.
"I wasn't thinking about any of this when I came to Houston three years ago," he said. "I had goals, but this is beyond my expectations.
"If I had stayed in Oklahoma City, I would still probably be in a very good situation, coming off the bench and playing a key role on a really good team. But I don't think anything like the sneaker deal, the other opportunities that are starting to lay out in front of me, would have happened.
"I know I would not have developed as an all-around player, as a person, as a leader. There's a lot that I didn't know and understand about what I was walking into -- the responsibility that comes with the position."
Harden hit the ground running, arriving in Houston just days before the start of the 2012-13 season and fired in 37 points at Detroit and 45 points in Atlanta in his first two games and his ball of white-hot fire hasn't stopped burning.
"All I knew when I got here is I wanted to make positive things to happen," he said. "I was thinking how was I going to fit? How was I going to put a stamp on the organization.
"I was confident in my ability, but I didn't know everything that was going to be required, expected. My first two years I was just trying to learn to score the ball at a high level every night, trying to build on that. Then I'm starting to hear, 'Oh, he can't lead a team. He can't play both ends of the court.' So I had to figure out how to play defense at a higher level and I think last year I did that."
A lot of players think they want to be the man and they want to get all the attention. They want all of the positives, everything that comes with it. But they don't know how difficult it is to actually to be in this spot.
– Houston Rockets star James Harden
Harden's burden is to continue clearing a bar that he keeps raising along with his game and his image and he's not at all shy about his reach. At 26, he is the franchise player the Rockets have been seeking since Hakeem Olajuwon's prime and, unlike the Hall of Fame big man, swallows up the spotlight like it's champagne and caviar. He bathes in the attention, craves it and even thrives with the same air of supreme confidence that lets him extend one arm and hold the ball out in front on a crowded drive through the lane, daring anyone to stop him.
"Look, this is a grind," Harden said. "That's why not a lot of players can be in this position. A lot of players think they want to be the man and they want to get all the attention. They want all of the positives, everything that comes with it. But they don't know how difficult it is to actually to be in this spot.
"Every time you lose, anytime you're not winning, you're blamed. It's a tough position to be in. But that's why the ones that are successful are truly meant to be in the position. For me, it's just about continuing to work and focus on what I can control.
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James Harden sits down with Matt Bullard during Rockets media day.
"Now you see the front office went out and got us Ty (Lawson). By having a guy who can take the ball out of my hands on a few possessions every game, it will keep me fresh later in games, later in the postseason. Doing a little less helps me do more. That's a great way to put it."
The space to move up has narrowed now that that Rockets have reached the conference finals, but that step to a championship is considerable.
"Last year we added Trevor (Ariza) and added Jet (Jason Terry)," Harden said. "Then Brew (Corey Brewer) and Josh (Smith) came part way into the season. We never had an opportunity to have a training camp together, to have guys locked in for an entire season. Then Dwight was out and all the [other] injuries. But somehow we managed to get to the conference finals.
"So I'm excited now to hopefully have a full roster healthy for an entire season and see where that takes us. I'll put my team up against any other team in the league. Nobody is better and we're ready."
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