James Harden sure looks good now.
The 25.9 points per game got noticed, the beard is cool and Harden made a very smart man named Sam Presti in Oklahoma City look pretty stupid by immediately becoming an All-Star.
Much respect to Harden, not yet 24, for all that.
What is a completely fair question going forward is whether Harden can keep looking this good, or look even better, as he must for the Rockets to emerge as real title contenders.
Who really knows what’s living deep down under that epic beard these days, but there is valid reason to believe that Harden’s complexion isn’t as clean as one might think.
One of the things that drove the Rockets last season was how badly Harden has always wanted to be the man. Now he gets Howard, who was wholly unable to accept any peripheral roles in his one season with the veteran-laden Lakers and who chose to go where he can stand tallest as the oldest key player on the team.
Will they be able to make nice together?
Well, what was up with Harden saying, “No Dwight questions,” as ESPNLA.com’s Arash Markazi tweeted, at the Drew League in Los Angeles? Jeremy Lin, despite a far less secure standing on the Rockets, answered plenty of Dwight questions after showing up for Steve Nash’s charity soccer event in L.A.
And a week ago while in the Philippines for an NBA promotion, according to The Philippine Star, “Handlers of James Harden of the Houston Rockets issued a strict reminder to media not to field any question related to new teammate Dwight Howard.”
Harden then joked when someone asked about Howard anyway: “What was the question?”
There wasn’t such jocularity in another part of The Star’s report: “Harden’s mood turned sour when a media man accidentally spilled water to his iPhone and was never the same from there.” Well, who wouldn’t be annoyed by that, but still...not exactly Mr. Congeniality here.
Harden did answer the Dwight question despite all the determined dodging of it, saying in footage recorded by Inquirer.net of the Philippines:
I’m excited to have Dwight. Obviously he’s a great talent, one of the best big men in the NBA. Obviously last year he had a down year, just injuries and things like that, but this year he’s hungry. He’s definitely focused on the ring. I think I am, too.
Those left behind with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in Oklahoma City would pretty surely dispute Harden’s focus on the ring. Those inside the Rockets’ inner circle might dispute it also, given Harden’s disinterest in defense and proclivity for the fun life off the court.
But offense-first All-Stars, parties and strip clubs are among the lynchpins of the NBA lifestyle. The Rockets locker room is the place where much more will be determined about this grand experiment, and we already know that Howard is far from the most mature and open-minded star in this league. The problem is: Harden has become known as a power player in the locker room already.
Even though everything looks good now, it’s not at all hard to envision some Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal push and pull making this a short honeymoon.
Kobe and Shaq still managed to win three titles together with the Lakers, but as Bryant will tell you, it entailed some serious sacrifice. One issue that Bryant has mentioned after O’Neal left the Lakers is how much easier it was for him to score without O’Neal clogging that lane.
Harden’s specialty is getting through that paint, and the stats show he has almost no mid-range game of which to speak.
Yet he will have to immediately accept major change to the free-flowing, fast-paced offense that catered to him so much last season. Howard has made abundantly clear, on the record, how he prefers to be in the post over pick-and-roll sets.
You do have to figure that Howard will be more eager to please after all that he has gone through and now that he has chosen Houston as his new home. That throws even more spotlight on Harden as the guy who might not let this work.
How much does Harden really want to be part of the group?
He didn’t feel much lasting sentiment about being the first draft pick in Oklahoma City history, holding out for every dollar he could from the small-market franchise. Because the Thunder haven't won a title, it’s not such a popular narrative anymore, but that small-town team is built on a communal spirit—one that Harden ultimately didn’t embrace.
Westbrook could’ve sought an extension that paid him more. Ibaka could’ve held off an extension to wait for more. Harden wanted the money he could get—and the chance to be out of the winning shadow of Durant and Westbrook, while surrendering all the winning that waited unquestionably around the corner.
That’s Harden’s prerogative. But considering how close the Spurs came to beating the Heat in June, it’s not difficult to envision a scenario where Harden would already have a ring on his finger—just with a different team and in a lesser role.
Some with the Rockets are unconvinced that Harden even wanted Howard at the beginning of free agency, wanting to keep owning this new solo spotlight.
But Harden has made good on the faith in himself that he could be a solo star.
And he has come this far in recruiting Howard and bringing him aboard.
Is where he has to go next simply too steep a path for him to traverse?
Ask people who’ve been around them, and the same thing could be said about both Harden and Howard: Dude doesn’t think he’s ever wrong.
That’s the character study lurking behind the obvious storyline that the Rockets hit the jackpot this offseason.
Just don’t be surprised if something hits the fan with these guys at some point.
Kevin Ding has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Los Angeles Lakers for OCRegister.com since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.