"James can see all the passes and do everything, but James is not a leader," Kevin McHale said before the season earlier this month. "He tried being a leader last year, tried doing all that stuff.”
"But on every team, you have to have a voice. On every team, you have to have somebody that when they say something, people listen. Like if James tells you, 'You've got to play better D,' are you going to listen to him? Like you've got to be kidding me. I lived through it. Believe me, everybody in the locker room did this," McHale said, putting his head down with his hand on his forehead to show the player reactions. "Every time he mentioned defense, everybody would put their head down."
Back in November of 2015, just 11 games into the Houston Rockets season, McHale was unexpectedly fired as the head coach. Although denied by management, there were rumors and speculations that Harden had forced them into firing McHale.
These comments came during a panel discussion on NBA TV regarding the Chris Paul signing and what it would bring to the Rockets. It’s not difficult to believe that these comments stemmed for some sort of animosity on how things ended the way they did between the Rockets and McHale, and because these comments came from a former coach that was fired, it naturally brings this statement under the spotlight for more dramatic reasons. But digging beneath the surface of all that, it begs the question: Is it true? Can James Harden be a leader?
Harden is undoubtedly one of the top players in the NBA, he’s finished in the MVP voting, second place, two times now. He’s consistently top five in scoring, and last year made the switch to point guard, then led the league in assists too (yes, and turnovers).
Offensively he’s one of the most gifted players we’ve seen in a long time, and he has successfully positioned himself to be a future Hall of Famer. But, just like he’s exposed from time to time for his defensive lapses, there seems to be another trend slowly emerging as his career unfolds.
Harden, when the going is good, is unstoppable. When you get deeper into the playoffs, and he’s tasked to take it up one more level, he has failed time after time. Not only that, he seems to drive key pieces from the organization away.
The first time he faded away, even though the Rockets won the series, was against the Clippers in 2015 in the second round. Harden failed to show up for a few games, and his teammates had to propel him past the Clippers in crucial moments during that series, most notably the infamous Clippers fourth-quarter collapse in Game 6 as Harden watched from the bench.
That next year, Rockets went an underwhelming 41-41, knocked out against the Warriors in the first round, and then all the drama with Dwight Howard began. Leading to Dwight being traded. Harden was the root cause behind all this as it came out that they didn’t get along, and wanted to part ways.
That same year, as mentioned earlier, McHale was fired 11 games into the season. Harden was once again the source of drama that ensued around this.
Last year, the collapse against the Spurs, with Kawhi Leonard out. The Rockets and Harden crumbled under pressure. He looked gassed, wasn’t the least bit vocal, and essentially checked out of that series eliminating loss before the game even started.
Deep diving into late-season shortcomings, and his relationships, there can be weight added to what McHale was trying to convey. Maybe with Paul now joining, the Rockets don’t need Harden to try to be a leader. McHale did praise Harden as well.
"I just think Chris Paul will be good for James Harden. It will allow him to just be what he is, which is a phenomenal basketball player, not trying to lead a team. That's just not his personality," McHale Said.
Only time will tell how the Chris Paul relationship works out in Houston. D’Antoni and Harden seem to be the perfect marriage, but they’re still one key piece away. Maybe they do need a true leader, maybe Harden is a great leader and needed a bit more help, and maybe we’ll be witnessing the same end to a Rockets season.
Paul is known to push on his teammates, Harden is known for his relaxed style. However, D’Antoni is known to bring talent together, create innovative styles of basketball, and maybe this can be the year all three get over their past failures.
What McHale said might not be completely wrong, even though it shouldn’t have been said. Harden replied back calling him a “clown,” now it’s up to Harden to go out once again and try to get over the seemingly troubling hill that greets him every summer.