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At Odds with James Harden, Dwight Howard Again Must Prove Worth as Teammate

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterDecember 18, 2015

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 17:  James Harden #13 and Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets celebrate a 107-87 win over the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on December 17, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — To see Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard yukking it up at Staples Center on Thursday night is to believe one of two hypotheses:

  1. NBA beefs are overblown.
  2. Time can heal even the most legitimate NBA beef.

I'll take Door No. 2, please…with Bryant's mellowing in light of his impending retirement the key behind it.

The more relevant issue is how much time James Harden and Howard will need to heal their beef—which is also legit, according to Rockets sources.

Things were good enough Thursday, with Harden feeding Howard sweet passes (even if he didn't convert them) early in the Rockets' 107-87 wire-to-wire victory over Bryant's Lakers. As the final horn neared, Howard was demonstrative in presenting a bonding moment—moving over and taking a big, slow-motion windup on a glad hand for Harden to accept.

Howard has been proactive in trying to show he is not causing trouble. Truth be told, he is not, and never has been, a bad person. Where his connections with teammates come unspooled is from his inability to compete as hard as others for victories and championships.

The same thing is happening now with Harden that happened for Bryant (and famously good-guy teammates Steve Nash and Pau Gasol) with the Lakers.

However much Harden hasn't warmed up to Howard's personality is a far secondary issue to however much Howard hasn't earned Harden's respect.

They're in the working-on-it stage right now—or perhaps more accurately, the setting-it-aside stage. The plan for the Rockets is to concentrate on the kind of sustained defensive intensity they found last season while getting folks not named Harden to touch the ball more. Through that realignment, new Rockets head coach J.B. Bickerstaff hopes to develop a more inclusive atmosphere.

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 14:  Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff of the Houston Rockets leads his team against the Denver Nuggetsd at Pepsi Center on December 14, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Rockets 114-108. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackno
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The tighter the group, the closer Harden and Howard naturally must become. It's using math to solve a personal problem.   

That might be a backward way to build a relationship between two people. But we must accept by now that it is thorny for achiever teammates to relate to Howard.

Plenty of folks really like Howard's energy and think he's a super fun guy. As rough a go as it was for him as a Laker, Howard had various staffers or folks he remembered from Staples seeking him out to catch up or have some laughs Thursday. Among those were Robert Sacre and Metta World Peace, the only current Lakers besides Bryant who were around in 2012-13 as Howard's teammates.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 17: Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets looks on during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on December 17, 2015 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The idea that Howard is some malcontent undermining the Rockets is a poor way to state the predicament. Howard is quite sincere in his desire to eliminate all negativity from his life.

However determined he is in that effort, it won't stop negativity from coming if he has a knack—even if he's not trying to—of annoying some people around him. Howard, though, is tone-deaf when it comes to other people's needs and wants, projecting his own beliefs about what's right or fun or smart on others.

It's almost not his fault he's that way, because he has been told his whole life how truly special he is—from being born after his mother's seven miscarriages, to ruling the tiny Christian academy that was his high school, to being the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick.

Then the Lakers beat out everyone else to get Howard away from the Magic, and the Rockets beat out everyone else to get Howard away from the Lakers—and someone else will see Howard again as a savior if he opts into free agency this summer.

Between now and then, Harden will just wait and see.

The Rockets are 13-14 and hope a return to winning will smooth things over and reintroduce the possibility that Harden and Howard are a championship one-two punch.

"Once we get our head above water, I think we'll start to see some change," Bickerstaff said. "The confidence will grow. The spirit within the guys will grow. That's what we need."

Apparently anything is possible, considering Bryant and Howard have become chummy on the floor. Thursday, Bryant was the one initiating the conversation; Howard was the one happy to smile.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 17: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets share a hug after the game on December 17, 2015 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"I mean, it's basketball," Howard said. "We're supposed to have fun. This is his last season, so why not go out having a good time? He's put in all the work, and now he can sit back and enjoy it."

Howard's right. The difference is Bryant isn't pushing to win at all costs as he once was.

He is sitting back and enjoying it because he has minimal chance at victory every night. He has accepted it. There's nothing left for Bryant to feud about with Howard.

That's not the case for Harden, whose patience with the expectations is growing thin.

"We'll hit a stride very soon," he said.

He's still hoping for a middle ground with Howard, citing the Rockets' proper equation as being able to "relax a little bit and work hard."

That's a lot like the Rockets hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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