HOUSTON — The shrug said it all.
James Harden, the NBA’s Black Beard from the Houston Rockets who goes against Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook in a showdown of leading MVP candidates on Thursday, is back in his hoops office again after a quick New Year’s Eve getaway in Las Vegas.
The shrug is his way of saying this is his norm, his “I live a dream life,” with Sin City shout-outs from Drake in the middle of a nightclub concert just hours after he became the first player in league history to score at least 50 points to go with 15 assists and 15 rebounds in a game.
“My brother scored 53, with 16 (rebounds) and 17 (assists at home against the Knicks) — that’s no coincidence,” Drake said amid the packed crowd. “It’s just that type of night.”
For Harden and the 27-9 Rockets, who went from the conference finals two Mays ago to a frustrating first-round playoff fall to their current third-place standing in the West, it’s just that type of season.
“I live a dream, man,” Harden, who followed his Vegas visit with a third consecutive triple-double in a win over the Washington Wizards on Monday, told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday. “Obviously I’m careful on what I do, but if I have an opportunity to do something special and great, and that I’ll look back on and say, ‘Yeah, remember that time ...’
“(Life) goes by fast, so I’m going to enjoy it to the best of my ability. And how I live my dream is how I live mine, and not for anybody else. I’m here. I’m here, and I’m smiling and I’m blessed.”
Harden is well on his way to a magical season. Despite Westbrook’s historic pace — he could become the only player besides Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double — there’s a strong argument to be made that Harden’s season so far is better. With averages of 28.4 points (fourth in the NBA), 11.9 assists (first), and 8.2 rebounds, he is – according to Basketball-Reference.com – on pace to join Robertson as the only players to average at least 28, 11 and eight (Robertson did it three times).
But this rebuilding of the Rockets is about more than Harden and his play. It’s about the choice he made last summer to help fix what was broken — on the roster and in the locker room.
As NBA narratives go, Harden’s last few seasons are enough to cause whiplash.
Two seasons ago, when he carried the Rockets to the franchise’s first conference finals appearance since 1997, his status as a top-five player had never been more solid. Though the media voted Golden State’s Stephen Curry MVP, the National Basketball Players Association deemed Harden more worthy.
Less than a year later – amid a coaching change from Kevin McHale to J.B. Bickerstaff, constant questions about his relationship with the now-departed Dwight Howard and a level of toxicity that Harden still doesn’t quite understand — the Rockets became also-rans who relied far too heavily on their seemingly flawed star.
Forget MVP. While Harden joined Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only players to average at least 28 points, seven assists and six rebounds, his leadership and ball-dominant style were often questioned, and he was left off the three All-NBA teams.
Fast forward to this season, with first-year coach Mike D’Antoni having moved Harden to point guard and new additions Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson proving perfect complements to his talents. Harden’s image has never been better.
Yet as Harden reflects on the roller coaster ride nature of these past few seasons, he swears the changing way he was perceived never bothered him.
“Never,” he said emphatically. “It never gets to me, because truly I know the type of player I am. I know what I bring to the table, and it’s a lot. It’s more than 95% of the people in this league, and it gets overlooked, but that’s out of my control.
“(This season) is a total … 180. What I mean by that is, it was tough, man. Obviously losing was tough. The energy wasn’t there. It wasn’t good. It was bad vibes. We weren’t together. Just the personalities. I couldn’t pinpoint it. But this year’s different.”
This isn’t just the ebb and flow of the NBA at work. This was a calculated plan put in place by the Rockets, with Harden heavily involved in all the key moves. And it all started, he said, with his decision to not join the U.S. Olympic team in Rio.
When Harden announced he wasn’t playing last June, many assumed his sole motivation was to rest. That was a factor, to be sure. He was spent physically and psychologically after that drama-filled 2015-16 campaign. But behind the scenes, where Rockets owner Les Alexander, CEO Tad Brown and general manager Daryl Morey were already exploring ways to spark a turnaround, Harden was heading the group that was trying so desperately to find him some help.
“It was probably one of the toughest decisions of my life, just to not go to Rio, but ... I wanted to make a conscious effort to be here and be with Daryl and Mr. Alexander and Tad Brown on who we can get in this locker room to help me for this upcoming season,” said Harden, who won gold with Team USA at the Olympics in 2012 and FIBA World Cup in 2014. “If I was to go to Rio and we didn’t get anybody and had the same year as last year, it wouldn’t have been good.”
So he met with Anderson and Gordon during free agency in Los Angeles, conducting players-only meetings of sorts that preceded the Rockets’ formal visits, then followed up with phone calls. He joined Rockets officials in Atlanta for meetings with Al Horford and Kent Bazemore, players who ultimately didn’t sign with Houston but who could know without a doubt that Harden wanted them to come.
“He was laser focused on making sure that he was able to assist the organization in any way he could,” Brown told USA TODAY Sports. “That was by focusing on himself, getting rest and getting in the best possible shape he could be in before he came into camp, and working with Les and Daryl on how he could improve the team. … We appreciate the opportunity of him having a voice and being a part of really going out and making an impact in free agency so we could get much better.”
Their internal conversations about restructuring the roster, as Harden remembers, were virtually nonstop. “It was every day — every single day. Texting, trying to get guys, just trying to better this organization, better this team. I felt like it was up to me to do it, and it worked out well.”
A week after the Rockets landed deals with Gordon (four years, $53 million) and Anderson (four years, $80 million), they signed Harden to a four-year, $118 million extension that made his long-term plans quite clear. From there, his offseason plan continued with players-only camps in Las Vegas (mid-July) and Miami (late August). Results would come later, but the chemistry was already growing.
“Going into the season, you want it to be fun,” Harden said. “It’s a long season, and obviously guys are going to have their ups and downs but overall just know that we have the same goal, and we wanted to make it exciting. So from that day on, it’s been like a dream for me.”
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