HOUSTON — James Harden offered his version of the company line.
“Something had to change,” he said.
Rockets management agreed. But Harden was not talking about the change the bosses had enacted.
Rockets owner Leslie Alexander and general manager Daryl Morey believed that change had to be on the bench and fired Kevin McHale as coach, arguing that the team was “not responding” to the coach who led the Rockets deeper in the playoffs than the franchise had gone in 17 years.
Harden blamed someone else.
He blamed himself. Whether Morey and Alexander made the right call is uncertain. We’ll never know if McHale would have turned the Rockets around. However, Harden was unquestionably right.
The player who had been central to everything that had gone right a season ago was in the middle of everything going so wrong. Some of that was because of his outsized role, but that responsibility comes with being the face—and facial hair—of the franchise.
“I feel like, for me, I had to change in order for us to be more positive, get more energy, things like that,” Harden said. “Whatever happened this morning, my mindset coming in today was just to be great at what I do, and that's being a leader and being a great supporter on the team.”
For the Rockets to be what they expect, Harden must lead them. It is not enough to be their leading scorer and playmaker—he was those things last season. As poorly as he began this season, he’ll be those things again.
He has to be more. That is his next step. He has to be more than he has ever been. And now, with the Rockets’ stunningly bad 5-7 start, he knows it.
Dwight Howard has grown into a reliable "good cop." On a team that has not played hard, he is playing the hardest. On a team that has been horrible defensively, he has been its best defender.
Still a comic, he is no longer just the silly goofball of his reputation, though he’ll never be confused for his former Lakers teammate and nemesis Kobe Bryant. He’ll never be the guy teammates sometimes hate for the demands he places on them. But there are limits to his influence.
Howard will be positive and encouraging. There is a place for that, but the good cop without a bad cop is not enough.
The Rockets have veterans who provide valuable voices—most notably Jason Terry, who is prepping for his coaching career. Team captain Patrick Beverley is helpful, much as Kenny Smith was in the Rockets’ championship days when he was not the leader but gave the team’s goals a locker room voice.
Only Harden can lead the way the Rockets so obviously need to be led. He has to be the guy who rallies his teammates but also develops the credibility that must come first to sometimes offer a verbal kick in the pants.
That begins with him taking responsibility for his own poor, uninspired play this season.
He did that the day before McHale was fired. According to a person with knowledge of the Rockets' team meeting, it began with Harden taking responsibility for the Rockets’ issues.
Teammates already knew he had regressed defensively, often standing around almost disinterested. He always had a tendency to hold the ball and is often very good when he takes his time to assess a defense. But when things go badly and he needs to move it more rapidly, he moves it less often and more slowly, bogging down the offense he is charged with guiding.
That all became worse as he began the season misfiring, hitting 37.3 percent of his shots through 12 games.
“And that's probably one of the reasons why the (team) energy has been so low,” Harden said. “Making shots or missing shots, I've got to bring my game—the game that needs to be for this team to get where we want to go.”
As much as anyone, he let the frustration and disappointment of the Rockets’ staggeringly poor start affect his play. When Rockets opponents were on a roll, the Rockets rolled over.
When Harden took responsibility for the issues, he took the vital first step in becoming the leader the Rockets need.
The Rockets would not have won on Wednesday against Portland had Corey Brewer not hit a running 30-footer with less than a second left to force overtime, bringing good fortune to a bad-luck start to the season. But even without that extra five-minute chance to win, they had shown signs of the fortitude that marked last season and had been absent this season.
“There was a focus,” Rockets interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “There was a commitment to it. Hard and difficult, no matter what the situation was, he fought through it. He lifted his guys. He prepared his guys. He talked to his guys.”
There has been plenty of talking lately.
McHale said he had more meetings in the past four to six weeks than in his previous four years as coach. Many of the recent meetings included getting Harden to commit to defense again, with Bickerstaff pushing Harden beyond even last season, when he had put his broken team on his back.
“The conversations we had were to try to build him to the best player that he can be,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s about leadership. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about those things that matter most to your teammates. For him, the talent is obvious. The fame, obvious. What’s next?
“Now you got to give. To be where he wants to be, you have to win and you have to win big. For him to do that, he has the talent around him, obviously. Now, he’s got to uplift it. He’s got to bring guys up. That’s what he’s focused on. That’s where he’s going.”
To get there, he has to demand more of himself. That is the only way he can get more from others.
Bickerstaff can only succeed if he gets his best player to be back at his best and then become better. Wednesday’s game looked like a start, but the real beginning could prove to be when Harden decided what the Rockets needed most.
“Myself, man, just be a player that everyone knows I can be on both ends of the floor,” he said. “He thought that I hadn't been that player. And just turn my focus level up a little bit more on both ends of the floor and just be a better leader out there, making sure my teammates are confident and all on the same page.”
With that, Harden seemed to know his importance to the Rockets does not end with scoring and playmaking.
It helped that he had a game that was in some ways unprecedented. Since steals became an official stat in 1973, no player had put up the 45 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds and five steals Harden had on Wednesday, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The Rockets needed that. More than ever, it had become clear that they need even more.
“Definitely,” Harden said. “Whether it's energy, whether it's cheering somebody on, whatever it is, picking my energy up. Tonight was just the beginning of it.”