Harden focused on leading team after tough season

With Howard gone, Rockets guard sets sights on championship

Fran Blinebury

HOUSTON — The door swung open and James Harden burst into the room in full song as he made his way to the podium on media day. A far cry from a year ago when all the Rockets did was wail the blues.

A fresh start. A new vibe. A clean page. A blank chalkboard. The eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.

The turmoil of that dismal 41-41 season, the firing of coach Kevin McHale, all of the gloom and dissonance that dogged them from the 20-point thumping on opening night in October to a 33-point beatdown that sealed a first-round playoff elimination in April took its toll and wore on everybody.

Along with something else. Rhymes with… Tight? Might? Plight?

Dwight Howard has moved to Atlanta now and the Rockets have moved on to a happier place. Not just to a new regime led by head coach Mike D’Antoni and a new-look roster bolstered by the additions of Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Nene, but to a place where there are no longer dueling egos and philosophies.

The three-year marriage of Howard and Harden produced just one season of making it past the first round of the playoffs and more friction in the locker room than traction on the court. It was a combination not so much oil-and-water as unease and mutual distrust that bubbled beneath the surface right from the start. Howard was a traditional post-up center approaching 30 and coming off back surgery when he arrived in Houston to a place where Harden was establishing himself as an unrelenting offensive force and preeminent player in the game. Just one season in the partnership was already fraying at the edges and ultimately fell apart in silence and disinterest.

So a year ago coming off a 56-win season, a trip to the Western Conference finals, the Rockets couldn’t have been a more sour bunch if they were sucking on a bag of lemons.

“I think last season was just frustrating for everybody, because we just couldn’t figure it out together,” said veteran forward Trevor Ariza. “That was the biggest key.

“At some point of the season it felt like we were taking steps in the right direction. But with a season like we had last year I don’t even know how to explain. It was weird, weird, weird…now the vibe has just been totally different.”

Having signed a $118-million contract extension that could keep him in Houston through 2020, these are now Harden’s Rockets from baseline to baseline and he is embracing the role not just completely, but more freely.

“We had a leader (Howard) last year,” Harden said. “He had his opinion and his voice and I also had mine. Teammates aren’t always going to be on the same page all the time. But it’s a new year.

“There was a lot going on (last year). The first few weeks McHale was gone. There was just a lot of distractions, a lot going on last season. This team’s got a new coaching staff, new players and so I make it a point and effort to know that all the guys are on the same page. Whether it’s the coaching staff or it’s the training staff or it’s the players, the front office as well. We all have one goal and that’s to win. If you’re an outcast, you’re gonna feel bad about yourself because everybody else is gonna be on the same page.”

With Harden’s great expectations.

“Championship,” he said. “Realistic. I think we have more than enough in that locker room to win it. We’re good enough to compete with anybody on any given night.”

It’s been an offseason where Harden has organized several mini-camps in Miami for his teammates to get to know each other as players and friends.

“We met a few times, just hanging out, getting to know each other,” Harden said. “Getting to know each other’s ins and outs, what you like, what you don’t like…It’s going to be fun.

“It was really good. We went to dinner, went to a concert. So that’s going to carry over onto the court. Ryan, guys like that, just told me, ‘This is your team. Be a leader and we’ll follow you.’ That right there gave me confidence to go out there and now that I’ve got guys following me and I just gotta go out there and hold up end.”

Harden says he also did some introspection.

“Last year was frustrating. Numbers individually were pretty solid. But just the love and excitement wasn’t there and so I looked in the mirror this summer and realized that I had to change. I got to get back to how I was. So my focus level, the things I can control, I got to get a lot better at and once I get myself figured out, then I can help others. That was one of the main things I focused on this summer. I’m excited. That’s why I gathered the guys together to get this thing going.”

Harden averaged 29 points, 7.5 assists and 6.1 rebounds last season but was left off all three All-NBA teams.

“Motivation, that’s it,” he said. “You don’t criticize anybody or what should have been done. You just look at yourself and say you’ve got to be better.

“That’s where we’re going. Communicating. It’s about having something to say and talking…It goes with anybody. If you’re a rookie and got something to say to me, say it. That’s what makes it more genuine.

“There are just certain players that you can’t approach like other players. Communication is the biggest key in anything to be a success. When you’re not communicating, there’s just too many guys in this locker room to read minds.”

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

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