It’s been nearly two years since the Houston Rockets fired Kevin McHale just 11 disappointing games into a new season, with management believing Houston’s players had stopped responding to the Hall of Fame player and bench boss amid a sluggish start to the campaign by James Harden and company. It didn’t really work — the 2015-16 Rockets kept sputtering under interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, finishing with a 41-41 record and a first-round elimination — but the two sides moved on. McHale returned to work as a broadcaster and commentator for Turner Sports; Harden bounced back with arguably the best season of his career under new head coach Mike D’Antoni in a 55-win campaign.
There’s a difference, though, between moving on and moving on. When it comes to the thawing of any frosty relations between the former coach and the superstar guard, though, it seems like — with a nod to Fran Fraschilla and the immortal Bruno Caboclo — we might still be two years away from being two years away.
During a discussion on an episode of NBA TV’s “Open Court,” McHale offered his perspective on how the Rockets’ big all-in offseason trade for All-NBA point guard Chris Paul would impact the team and, specifically, Harden. It did not paint the most flattering picture of the bearded ball-handler:
— NBA TV (@NBATV) October 6, 2017
I think [adding Paul] makes them a much better team, because you know, you had James Harden with the ball, fantastic with the ball, great passer. The guy’s got phenomenal vision. Talk about vision: James can see all the passes, everything. But James is not a leader. You know, he tried being the leader last year, tried doing that stuff. I think Chris Paul is going to help him just kind of get back into just being able to hoop and play and stuff like that.
But on every team, you have to have a voice. On every team, you have to have somebody that, when they say something, people listen. You know, James — like, [talks to fellow panelist Charles Barkley] if James tells you, “Chuck, you’ve got to play better [defense],” are you listening to him?
[At that, the other panelists laughed.]
Like, you’ve got to be kidding me! I lived through it. Believe me! Everybody in the locker room did this [puts head in hands] Every time he mentioned defense, everybody would put their head down like this. You’ve got to be kidding me. Now, Chris Paul is going to push him, too. Chris Paul’s not going to — when [Harden] does that staying in the backcourt, doesn’t get a foul, looking at the referee, not running back, Chris Paul is going to jump his butt. And that’s going to make him a better player. I just think Chris Paul will be good for James Harden. It will allow him to just be what he is, which is a phenomenal basketball player, not trying to lead a team. That’s just not his personality.
Harden responded to McHale’s comments at the Rockets’ Saturday practice. You’re not going to believe this, but he didn’t much appreciate them!
James Harden on Kevin McHale saying he is no leader. "He's a clown."
Here's more: pic.twitter.com/PQQjugawHB
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) October 7, 2017
“He’s a clown. Honestly,” Harden said. “I did anything and everything he asked me to do. I tried to lead this team since I stepped foot here in Houston. To go out there and downplay my name, honestly, he’s never taught me anything to be a leader. But I’ve done a great job. The organization, my coaches. You can ask any of those guys how I worked extremely hard every single day to, obviously, be a better basketball player, but to be a leader as well, defensively as well.” […]
“To downplay my name like that, it shows his character,” Harden said. “I usually don’t go back and forth on social media with anybody or with interviews. But it’s time to stand up for myself. You just don’t go and do that. It shows what type of person he is.”
Asked if McHale could be reacting to the abrupt end of his tenure as Rockets coach, Harden said, “For sure, and I had nothing to do with it. I’m just here to do my job, compete at the highest level that I can.”
At the risk of tendering America’s hottest take, I think this is a situation where we might be best served to Hear Both Sides.
On one hand, whatever the reason behind it — a longer-than-expected rehab from injury, a summer spent celebrating a super-lucrative new apparel contract, a highly publicized relationship with reality star Khloe Kardashian, all or none of the above — Harden did come into the ’15-’16 season looking a couple of steps slow, struggling both with his individual defense and to maintain chemistry with Howard. McHale, naturally, made no bones about this during a post-firing appearance on TNT’s “Inside the NBA.”
Harden, of course, went on to turn in a monumentally productive individual season, all but carrying the broken-down Rockets to the playoffs by sheer force of offensive will. It’s fair to wonder, though — and especially in the context of McHale’s framing of Harden’s work in the locker room — whether the team might not have been in a healthier environment had its star scorer and playmaker made a more concerted effort toward open and vocal leadership a little earlier. From a 2016 Harden feature by Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins:
Tensions between Harden and Howard, simmering for years, boiled over. Howard wanted early post feeds from Harden; Harden wanted high ball screens from Howard. In the final seconds of a two-point loss at New Orleans in December, Harden waited for a screen from Howard that never came, and his subsequent drive was swallowed up. Then, in Dallas in April, it happened again. A player who joined the Rockets midseason eyed Harden and Howard, taking opposite routes out of the locker room. “When you come here,” a veteran counseled, “you have to pick your side.” It was up to a 36-year-old interim coach, J.B. Bickerstaff, to manage the mess. Interventions backfired.
It might have been easier if Harden and Howard just threw punches—or at least posted subtweets. But they are both non-confrontational by nature, so Harden stewed in silence, often ducking out of Toyota Center before he had time to stretch or ice. He even drifted apart from Beverley, his closest friend on the team. “He was just … distant,” Beverley says. “The losing was really hard on him.” […]
Harden never criticized Howard, and he still doesn’t. He never complained about a combustible roster—Ty Lawson, Michael Beasley and Josh Smith under the same roof—or moaned about an inexperienced coach, at least not publicly. “He just ate it,” says a Rockets official. “He ate all of it.”
And from a 2017 Jenkins feature on Howard:
It’s no surprise [Howard] clashed with [former Los Angeles Lakers teammate Kobe] Bryant, whose persona is famously confrontational, but in Houston he also engaged in a cold war with the mild-mannered James Harden. “James is not the kind of guy who is going to say, ‘Yo, man, you got a problem?’ and I’m not either,” Howard says. “When I don’t like what’s going on, I tend to shut down, put my headphones on and ignore everything. I don’t talk about things. That happened to me in L.A. It happened to me again in Houston. I should have communicated better.” One Rockets official called a meeting with Howard and Harden that felt more like an intervention. Harden voiced what he wanted from Howard, namely stronger screens and tougher rim protection, but Howard didn’t express much in response. The freeze deepened.
On the other hand, though, vocal/confrontational leadership isn’t everybody’s style. And if you’re of the mind that there’s something to be said for leading by example — by being present and accounted for every day, by putting in the work and producing with consistency — it’s tough to argue that Harden doesn’t do that. He’s missed only two games in the last three years, and only 14 in five seasons since arriving in Houston. He’s worked extremely hard to become one of the sport’s most productive and difficult-to-stop players, and takes great pride in being someone the Rockets can count on to carry the creative burden, day in and day out, year after year. Any suggestion that he hasn’t expended a ton of effort to become the kind of player you can bank a franchise on would be misplaced.
Few players in the league have proven as reliable and available a tentpole Harden has over the last half-decade … on the offensive end, that is. McHale clearly saw that teammates didn’t respond favorably to Harden’s often lackluster effort on the other half of the court, and commenting on that seems fair enough. He hasn’t, though, seen what kind of work Harden’s put in over the past two years — which, according to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, has included stuff like “regularly read[ing] books on leadership with Jason Biles, the Rockets’ director of performance rehabilitation and associate athletic trainer” and “regularly organiz[ing] team social outings and offseason activities, such as the voluntary minicamp that Houston’s players held in the Bahamas this summer” — to take a more central role in leading the team. It’s no wonder that Harden bristled at the charge:
“[…] when you’re here, you’re face-to-face, and you’re telling me one thing — how great of a player you are, how you’re lucky that he’s able to be a part of this process — and then you go back just a few years later and basically just say the opposite, it just shows your character, shows who you really are. I’m not that type of person. I don’t operate that way. I don’t say things to somebody behind their back or tell them one thing or go on air and say another thing.”
It’s entirely possible that McHale can be telling the truth about the Harden he knew when he coached him, and about the impact that a hard-charging running mate like CP3 will have, and that current Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni can be doing the same about the one he’s working with now:
“All I can do is talk about my experience, and he’s been unbelievably great,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Obviously, I got Coach of the Year last year because of him and the other 10 guys on the team. He’s been great with everything I asked. I asked a lot of him last year. I asked him to be the point guard. I asked him to talk in D. I asked a lot of things, and he responded great. We had great chemistry. He’s the first one to get them all together in the summertime or take them out during the year to keep the team together. So I didn’t see it. He’s been great for me.”
“I don’t know how he can be more motivated for what we need,” D’Antoni said. “The guy has been … terrific. I haven’t seen any other side other than really, really positive. I don’t think he needs any more motivation. He goes on all cylinders as much as he can go. A lot of times, an individual will use that to spur him on. Whatever it takes. But whatever it takes, he has been doing it. He’s been great.”
How Harden and Paul fit together promises to be one of the most fascinating subplots to watch over the course of this season, on and off the court. The fact that Harden went out and recruited Paul to help make the partnership happen, though, might be the most compelling evidence yet that, McHale’s observations aside, Harden has grown as a leader — and that he, like Stephen Curry before him, has become the type willing to make room and share if it means getting his team to the next level. That doesn’t do McHale much good as he sits on set in Atlanta, but it’d be a heartening development for a Rockets club with its sights set on a championship.
– – – – – – –