The days of NBA stars disappearing in the offseason are over.
Social media provides an instant line between the fans and the game’s greats, with players such as James Harden often sharing a glimpse of what their summer holds. So when the Houston Rockets star posted a picture of himself shooting a shirtless free throw while in China on Sunday — his eyes fixed on the rim and his upgraded physique there for all to see — it was just the kind of update that his loyalists love.
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Harden, 27, who helped the Rockets land Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers in late June and has been juggling social and charity endeavors ever since, is clearly ready for this season to begin. And by the looks of it, he's more fit and fired up than ever.
“Every summer, it’s about getting better and putting yourself in a position to last an entire season,” Harden told USA TODAY Sports this week while in Birmingham, Ala., where he partnered with BBVA Compass to donate a basketball court, announce that the Rockets would host a 2018 preseason game in the city and offer financial literacy courses to students at Parker High School. “I know how exciting this season is (going to be, and) I know how important it is, so I’m going to take full advantage of it. I have a lot of charity (events), a lot of things going on, but when I’m in that gym that’s kind of my getaway. That’s kind of when I’m locked in.”
Harden will get in plenty of court time this weekend. He’s hosting the inaugural JH-Town Weekend at Rice University. In between the backpack giveaways and photo ops, there will be a charity tournament that is expected to headlined by Harden, Paul, the Washington Wizards’ John Wall and the Toronto Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan.
But the physical evolution that was there for all to see on his Instagram feed is no small statement from Harden, whose latest season ended so badly amid questions about whether he had worn down. After months of MVP-caliber play, with Harden taking over at point guard at the behest of coach Mike D’Antoni and the Rockets (55-27) finishing third in the Western Conference during the regular season, his struggles in their second-round playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs — late in Game 5 and all of the deciding Game 6 — were the Rockets' death knell.
Harden, who joined Oscar Robertson as the only other player to average at least 29 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds per game in the regular season but also had a career-high usage rate of 34.1, looked tired at the end. So he added yoga and pilates to his routine, focused on his rest and tweaked his diet. The goal, of course, is to make the most of this opportunity he has to create the league’s latest dynamic duo with Paul.
While Paul was set to become a free agent July 1 if he had opted out, the nine-time All-Star informed the Clippers of his desire to play with Harden and his Rockets and was traded to Houston instead. Harden, who signed a four-year extension this summer and will earn a combined $228 million by the end of the 2022-23 season, had everything to do with the move.
“I just knew that in the summertime obviously (Paul) was a free agent, and I wanted to see where his head was,” Harden said of Paul, who will now be a free agent next summer. “He didn’t seem happy, so after that we just took it from there.
“Obviously Golden State has been in the Finals and won two out of three, so that’s what everybody is trying to build up against. But we’re right there. We’re right there. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, but it definitely puts us in a better chance.”