If James Harden has been listening to what his critics have had to say, you wouldn’t be able to tell from the look of things at Houston Rockets training camp.
The star shooting guard has been as relaxed as anyone on the floor. Donning a headband and rolled-up shorts, while loudly singing along to ‘Hello’ by Adele, Harden looks more than comfortable in his own environment. After a rough 2015-16 campaign, the feeling around Houston is excitement for a fresh start.
“Last year was frustrating. Just the love and excitement wasn’t there. I had to look in a mirror this summer and realize that I have to change and I have to get back to how I was,” Harden said. “Once I get myself figured out, I can help others. That was one of the main things I focused on this summer. That’s why I’m in a good place right now.
“Last year wasn’t good for me. I have to be better, and I will be better.”
The Rockets’ franchise player has been a lightning rod for criticism, especially last year as his team drastically underachieved by most people’s expectations. Whether it’s questions about his defense, his leadership skills, or even his decision-making off the court, Harden draws quite a bit of ire from the outside world. But he knows who he is and the things he’s capable of doing, so he doesn’t let the narratives bother him.
“It’s white noise, because I’m more than capable. I know I can play defense. Like I said, last year was a blur. Everything was happening so fast,” he said. “We all go through that in life. We all have bad days, bad years. Who doesn’t? It’s the bounce-back that makes you stronger.”
And it isn’t just Harden who’s got that confidence. One thing that’s been evident since media day in Houston is the support he has from his teammates. From the initiative he’s taken to organize workouts and events with the team during the offseason, to his elevated status as clear-cut leader, he’s become quite popular in the locker room.
“Thirteen? Thirteen (Harden’s jersey number) is always a beast, man. Everybody knows that. He doesn’t get a lot of credit for it though. I don’t know why,” Patrick Beverley said. “Of course he works extremely hard every summer. I know his heart for the game. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had one of those years. We expect big things. Him getting MVP and leading us to a championship is very attainable.”
That will obviously be easier said than done. A quick look across the NBA landscape — and to the Bay Area, in particular — will reveal a gauntlet that will be difficult for the Rockets to get through, even with their new additions. But Harden hears the doubters, and it’s been music to his ears.
“I get motivation from anything. You just gotta be better,” he said. “You don’t blame anybody, you don’t criticize anybody. You look in the mirror and look at yourself.”
After the season Houston had last year, there was plenty of time for reflection, to look in that mirror. Gone is Kevin McHale. Gone are Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones. Now Harden has a fresh start as the undisputed leader.
Without mentioning Howard’s name specifically, Harden told reporters he believes the roster changes have allowed for more defined roles in the locker room hierarchy.
“We had another leader last year. He had his choice and his opinion, and I also had mine,” he said. “Obviously, teammates aren’t going to be on the same page at all times, but this is a new year.
And the players are right there behind Harden — from the young guys to the old heads.
“I think it’s very important, especially for him,” Trevor Ariza said. “The fact he knows he has his guys’ ears, and guys on this team are willing to run through walls for him, I think that does nothing but help his confidence and give him confidence in his teammates as well.”
Confidence has never been a problem for Harden, even following a season that saw him left off all three All-NBA teams — something he mentioned was confusing to him. But for Houston to return to the place it was two years ago, the team’s superstar is going to have to find the form that nearly earned him MVP honors.
Still, it will take more than just Harden. The players who now surround him, the ones who trust their leader absolutely, will have to pick up the slack left behind last year as they move forward to face a brutal Western Conference schedule.
“I feel very good we’ve been able to get the players on the roster who, from the bottom up, all fit a style of play that our coaching staff is very comfortable with,” Daryl Morey said. “We’ve got big goals. It reminds me a lot of a couple of years ago, when the narrative was how (we) can’t survive with this player or that player that isn’t here. And we surprised everyone and won at a very high level, made the Western Conference Finals.”
And Morey isn’t alone with his sentiments. For the Rockets, the goal for the upcoming season is crystal clear.
“Championship,” Harden stressed. “I think we have more than enough in that locker room to win. And we’re going to compete with anybody on any given night.”