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McHale takes the fall for team lacking cohesion and trust

Adding Ty Lawson to oft-injured Dwight Howard and James Harden has brought level of dysfunction to the Rockets' offense

POSTED: Nov 18, 2015 3:18 PM ET

By Fran Blinebury

BY Fran Blinebury


James Harden and Dwight Howard have never appeared to be in sync during their two seasons together in Houston.

No place to run. No place to hide.

Not for James Harden, who keeps telling the world that he's the MVP.

Not for Dwight Howard, who will opt out of his contract and expect to be paid another king's ransom as a free agent next summer.

The Rockets fired coach Kevin McHale because it's what teams do when expectations are crumbling and backing a dump truck up to the roster isn't feasible.

So now, just 11 months after they gave him a three-year contract extension and six months following a rollicking ride all the way to the Western Conference finals, we're to think the winningest coach by percentage (193-130, .598) in franchise history, forgot how to do his job.

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By the numbers, the Rockets are 4-7 with already five home losses going into Wednesday's game against the Trail Blazers (8 p.m. ET on NBA League Pass) because their offense is disorganized and their defense has been inept.

But at the core of the problem is a distrusting relationship on the court and in the locker room that over the first three weeks of the season has turned the team into a squabbling, dysfunctional mess.

One had only to watch the Rockets carping, griping and often finger-pointing at each in the embarrassing third-quarter meltdown in Monday's whipping by the Celtics to see all of it on parade.

Had McHale, as the old trope goes, really "lost the locker room" or had a tentative bond between the two reigning stars been lost at the very first sign of trouble?

As individuals, neither Howard or Harden have the alpha dog mentality to be team leaders that can match their skills. Both love the perks that come with the role and enjoy basking in the spotlight, yet neither has the personality to connect and get through to teammates. The happy-go-lucky Howard wants too much to be liked and idiosyncratic Harden would rather be a pop idol and solo artist.

In their two seasons together, Howard and Harden have never been in sync, but more like a pair of planets orbiting around each other. When their first season together ended with Damian Lillard's dramatic 3-point shot in Game 6 of the first round against Portland, the two camps went off into the summer grumbling in discontent and whispering about dispatching the other.

When knee problems that began early last season eventually led to Howard missing 41 games of the regular-season schedule, it opened the door for Harden to carry all of the offensive load and he shined by putting up numbers that got him into to the MVP conversation with Stephen Curry.

It was a postseason run that ultimately ended with Harden run down and worn out physically and emotionally from having to shoulder so much of the burden and it led to the Rockets making the offseason deal to bring in point guard Ty Lawson.

While Harden could intellectually accept the notion that Lawson's presence in the offense should lighten the load and make him more productive late in games and late in the season, the product on the court in the early going has been a bad mix. Lawson has been unable or unwilling to assert himself as the aggressive attacker of the basket and Harden has appeared at times disinterested in being engaged in possessions when he doesn't have the ball in his hands and can't dominate every ebb and flow. From a defensive standpoint, Harden has regressed badly to the who-me form that attracted such criticism two years ago.

At the same time, a cautious approach by the Rockets with Howard's physical condition has evidently caused some of the old resentments to return. McHale's hands were tied by a program from the medical and training staff that is intended to preserve the center and have him in peak condition for the playoffs. On the cusp of turning 30 next month, Howard has played in just seven of the first 11 games. He has been kept out of playing both ends of back-to-backs and has played an average of just 30.1 minutes per game.

The general acknowledgment that the Rockets cannot make a serious run at a championship without a ready and healthy Howard could chafe at anyone that believes he is at the center of the universe. And that describes Harden, the TMZ headliner who signed the $200 million endorsement deal with Adidas over the summer and has never met a camera he didn't like.

The compromise could be both of the stars ceding the role of team leader to a veteran such as Trevor Ariza or Jason Terry, both of whom have won championships. But Howard and Harden both want the bully pulpit when it serves them.

Put it all together and it's produced a toxic relationship that team meetings and a coaching switch isn't likely to change over the long term.

The irony is that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey chased Howard for years to install him in the middle of his lineup and finally got him at a time when his body is beginning to fail him.

Now Morey has a center who can't be a reliable, every night mainstay and a backcourt star who knows that and doesn't want to make or live with the accommodation.

What was an uneasy truce has frayed around the edges again until it ripped McHale out of the picture.

Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff may be a new voice, but he's still got the same old problem.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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