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Houston Rockets Notebook: James Harden's Plan to Shut Up the Haters

Maurice Bobb@@ReeseReportFeatured ColumnistOctober 2, 2016

USA's NBA basketball player James Harden poses after a press conference on August 20, 2016 in Paris.  / AFP / BERTRAND GUAY        (Photo credit should read BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)
BERTRAND GUAY/Getty Images

The ongoing character assassination of James Harden, former All-NBA player, still doesn't sit well with anyone in the Houston Rockets organization. Last spring, Harden was famously taken down a peg by a cadre of sportswriters (and fans) armed with selective stats, memes, influence and ballots.

Harden, the former MVP runner-up and league's second-leading scorerwho before that day was on a three-year streak of exclusive membership as one of the game's top 15 players (third team 2012-13, first team 2013-14 and 2014-15)was nowhere in sight on the 2015-16 All-NBA teams. A closer look at the press release revealed his current standing: "Other players receiving votes."

Granted, he received 106 points. For comparison's sake, Stephen Curry, a member of the All-NBA First Team, earned 645 points.

The message was clear: The media were no longer buying what Harden was selling.

"We know peak James Harden is recognized by the players as the best player in the league two years ago, so players know what's up," Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told B/R. "So for whatever reason, I've never understood it. People like to generate random negative narrative about James. I've never understood it."

Will 2016-17 be his bounce-back year? There's a strong case for it, and the Rockets.

First, Harden seems genuinely inspired by his growing legion of critics.

"I get motivation from anything," Harden said during Rockets media day last week. "I mean, when's the last time that happened? Somebody averaged 29, seven and six and they didn't make any [All-]NBA team? But motivation, that's it. You just gotta be better. You don't blame anybody, you don't criticize anybody or what should have been done. You look in the mirror, look at yourself and say be better for next year. That's it."

But what will "better" look like for Harden?

More points? More assists? More rebounds? Cutting down turnovers? Winning more games? Making players around you, ahem, better?

The starting point is obvious if you've followed the infinite stream of memes and GIFs depicting Harden as blindly floating around the defensive end.

"It's white noise because I'm more than capable," Harden said. "I know that I can play defense. I'm one of the best players in this league. Like I said, last year was a blur. Things were happening so fast, and we all go through it in life. We all have bad days, bad years, who doesn't? But it's the bounce back that makes you stronger."

Harden says he was "in the lab all summer" to ensure he didn't report to training camp out of shape like last year. New assistant coach and lead defensive strategist Jeff Bzdelik worked with him one-on-one over the offseason to address the elephant in the room.

"I've been here for the last few weeks training, and [Bzdelik and I] go over principles, go over different techniques, go over footing, those small details. That's something that we hadn't had the last few years," Harden said. "So it's all the attention-to-detail things that's going to help us. That's why I say the vibe is different. Guys like me still need to be taught."

Harden may also benefit from the disappearance of Dwight Howard, who took his talents, touches and general discontent to Atlanta.

"He had his opinion and his voice and I also had mine. Teammates aren't always going to be on the same page at all times, but it's a new year," Harden said of the relationship he had with Howard.

Without Howard, perhaps the NBA's most reliable fall guy, Harden will shoulder 100 percent of the blame should the Rockets fail to climb the Western Conference standings. If the team gets out to another slow start, the narrative will inevitably shift to Harden's leadership abilities.

Entering his eighth season, he is wise enough now to get out in front of those stories. One step was organizing voluntary offseason workouts this past summer in Las Vegas and Miami.

"This summer we met a few times and just hanging out, just getting to know each other, getting to know each other's ins and outs, what you like, what you don't like, it carries over to the court," Harden said. "Just getting to know somebody, hanging out. We went to dinner, to a concert, that's going to carry over onto the court. Ryan [Anderson], guys like that told me, 'This is your team. You're the leader. We're going to follow you.' That right there gave me confidence."

Harden, already an elite playmaker accustomed to having the ball in his hands (his 32.5 percent usage rate last year was a career high, per Basketball-Reference), will assume an even greater offensive burden this year. Head coach Mike D'Antoni has already declared Harden will often handle point guard duties, where he'll be asked to toggle between scorer and playmaker.

Last year saw too many isolation plays and a tendency to draw fouls rather than find an open man. But with three-point snipers in Anderson and Eric Gordon, Harden suddenly has dependable options in every direction.

"Those guys [Anderson and Gordon] can shoot the ball," Harden said. "I'm more excited because…I got space. … We have a lot of guys who are more than capable to create and knock down shots, and that's what is going to open our floor. A lot more guys are going to get open shots left and right."

The Rockets likely won't challenge the Warriors or the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference hierarchy this season. But if they can effectively strategize around Harden's superstar abilities, a top-four finish in the West seems within reach.

    

Do You Even Lift, Bro?

That’s no longer a question Houston Rockets fans should ask Clint Capela, who, in anticipation of the increased minutes he'll see at the center position this season after Howard's departure, put on a significant amount of muscle this summer.

"I put on about 10 or 12 pounds," Capela said. "I know that I'm going to get to play more minutes, and I'm really excited about it."

HOUSTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 24:  Clint Capela #15 of the Houston Rockets poses for a portrait during the 2016 NBA Media Day at the Toyota Center on September 24, 2016 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

       

Nene Finally Finds Houston

For those who don't remember, the Rockets targeted Nene five years ago in free agency, and he wanted to be a Rocket. Things didn't work out, but the Brazilian big man is finally in red, yellow and whitereunited with his very first NBA coach, Bzdelik.

"I feel like a little kid on the first day of school. I'm very excited," he said.

Nene's willingness to help Capela take that next step at center could bode well for the team's future—if Nene is willing.

          

The New Vibe

Without Dwight Howard in the fold, Trevor Ariza, right, and James Harden can start build a new culture in Houston.
Without Dwight Howard in the fold, Trevor Ariza, right, and James Harden can start build a new culture in Houston.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

According to Trevor Ariza, there's a whole new positive vibe felt by everyone in the locker room going into this season that wasn't there last year: "So far, since the summer, since our new signings, we've been able to come together, James has put together, the vibe has been totally different. Everyone's excited to show what they worked on, excited just to be around each other, and we've been spending a lot of time off the court getting to know each other, and those things right there go a long way."

    

Gordon's Time to Shine

This is the first time Eric Gordon has been able to choose his team. He picked the Rockets because he saw an opportunity to win and showcase his playmaking abilities: "Everybody looks at me as a shooter because that's what I've been doing the last couple of years, but I was really known as a playmaker and added the shooting. Now I have that chance here to mix it all together."

Follow Maurice Bobb on Twitter at @ReeseReport.

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