The Houston Rockets came into this season lacking one thing primarily—leadership.
Acquiring James Harden and Dwight Howard over the past two seasons has made them serious competitors in the talent department. No doubts there. But it’s what happens that’s not “on paper” which often decides whether a team can take it to the next level. It’s what happens in that strange space where basketball and personality mingle.
Howard, of course, has never exactly been lauded for his interpersonal behavior. Baby, prima donna, limp-spined, childish—you name it, he’s been called it. His implosion with the Orlando Magic and inability to get along with Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers have forever branded him as a non-leader.
More important is that he never actually was one—with Orlando, it was Stan Van Gundy’s voice that ruled the locker room. Dwight may be the elder statesman in Houston, but it’s safe to say that no one is looking his way for advice. And he’d prefer it that way, as Dwight is always more effective when he can let his playing do his talking for him.
Harden hasn’t known such media vitriol, but he’s also never taken a true winner under his beard.
Remote and enigmatic, it’s hard to speculate what Harden is like off the court.
Quiet? Most likely—his interviews certainly suggest as much. Like Howard, Harden is at his best when he can let his game do his inspiring for him. He set a tremendous example last year, as the Rockets’ climb up the Western Conference was inarguably linked to his ascension as a superstar.
But in order to stay cohesive as the team looks to grab a top seed in the historically impressive Western Conference and make noise in the playoffs, the squad will need a more vocal leader at some point.
An unexpected candidate for the job has emerged in Chandler Parsons. Parsons has been with the Rockets all three years of his career, making him easily the longest-tenured member of the team’s core. He was also the first Rocket to reach out to James Harden once he was traded to Houston. He also played a big role in the recruitment of Howard.
Beyond his off-court organizational prowess, Parsons has been backing his hand with his play. He's averaged 19.3 points on a scorching 63% from the field in his last five games, all Rockets wins. Three of those came with Harden sidelined with a sore left foot—three of them without Jeremy Lin, too—and the team’s streak ended Monday against the pathetic Utah Jazz when Parsons had to sit with a sore back.
It may seem like a coincidence, but it should also be noted that Parsons’ unusually focused shot chart, with its nearly religious avoidance of low-percentage shots, acts as a perfect model for GM Daryl Morey’s offensive tenets. In Parsons, the franchise has a player willing to stake his performance on the truths their long hours in the video room have come to.
The loss to Utah in Parsons' absence may be telling of how he helps in focusing his team.
What it exactly means for Parsons, or any other Rocket, to be Houston’s leader is hard to say. It’s believed to be advantageous to have your very best player also be your most vocal—many suggest this allows for the rest of the roster’s buy-in to come most easily—but there’s no absolute proof for this claim. Leadership is a fairly abstract concept.
Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki are all NBA Champions without much of a reputation for orating on the bench or in the locker room. Their strong play, excellent coaching and slew of gluey role players were enough to take them to the top. The jury is still out on whether Kevin McHale can provide a similar structure as those teams had, and allow leadership to invade the team as more of an overall concept than as a gift from one of its superstars.
If Harden and Howard want to get there too, they may have to develop a similar reliance on a lesser talent in being the voice that pulls their team together. For the time being, they could certainly do much worse than the stand-up Parsons.