Storyline: Howard-Harden Dynamic

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It’s no surprise he clashed with Bryant, whose persona is famously confrontational, but in Houston he also engaged in a cold war with the mild-mannered James Harden. “James is not the kind of guy who is going to say, ‘Yo, man, you got a problem?’ and I’m not either,” Howard says. “When I don’t like what’s going on, I tend to shut down, put my headphones on and ignore everything. I don’t talk about things. That happened to me in L.A. It happened to me again in Houston. I should have communicated better.” One Rockets official called a meeting with Howard and Harden that felt more like an intervention. Harden voiced what he wanted from Howard, namely stronger screens and tougher rim protection, but Howard didn’t express much in response. The freeze deepened.

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It’s no surprise he clashed with Bryant, whose persona is famously confrontational, but in Houston he also engaged in a cold war with the mild-mannered James Harden. “James is not the kind of guy who is going to say, ‘Yo, man, you got a problem?’ and I’m not either,” Howard says. “When I don’t like what’s going on, I tend to shut down, put my headphones on and ignore everything. I don’t talk about things. That happened to me in L.A. It happened to me again in Houston. I should have communicated better.” One Rockets official called a meeting with Howard and Harden that felt more like an intervention. Harden voiced what he wanted from Howard, namely stronger screens and tougher rim protection, but Howard didn’t express much in response. The freeze deepened.

It might have been easier if Harden and Howard just threw punches—or at least posted subtweets. But they are both non-confrontational by nature, so Harden stewed in silence, often ducking out of Toyota Center before he had time to stretch or ice. He even drifted apart from Beverley, his closest friend on the team. “He was just … distant,” Beverley says. “The losing was really hard on him.” At Artesia High and Arizona State, in OKC and Houston, Harden did nothing but win. After shootarounds last season, he routinely parked his Bentley across from the arena on Clay Street and vented to Scott Pera, his high school coach who is now an assistant at Rice.

Harden never criticized Howard, and he still doesn’t. He never complained about a combustible roster—Ty Lawson, Michael Beasley and Josh Smith under the same roof—or moaned about an inexperienced coach, at least not publicly. “He just ate it,” says a Rockets official. “He ate all of it.” He was tending to Howard on the court and Khloé Kardashian off, a double whammy of diva, made even more complex because Khloé was caring for estranged husband Lamar Odom after his overdose at a Nevada brothel. At one point, Khloé took to a live video chat and denied that her sexuality was to blame for the Rockets’ struggles, though she chose a far spicier turn of phrase.

Howard wanted the ball more last season, but the Rockets wanted Harden to have it and decide what to do with it. It led to chaos, with Howard admitting he was “disinterested” at times last season. “I thought that after we went to the Western Conference finals that we was really going to take off,” Howard said. “But it didn’t happen. I would say part of it was the communication wasn’t there between myself and James. I think we both allowed outside sources and stuff like that to kind of manipulate our thoughts and things like that. It was a learning experience for me that I take to this team — communicating, being open and up front with everybody. I thought me and James would have been very special together. He was one of the reasons I chose the city. But things don’t always end up the way we want them to. But I’m very happy for James and his success as an individual. His play has been amazing all year.”

“Just personalities,” Harden said when asked why it didn’t work with Howard. “I don’t know, honestly. It’s never, we never got into heated arguments, yelled at each other or cursed each other out or anything. That’s the crazy part. I guess, in life, two people just can’t get along. What I mean by that is on the court, it just don’t work. It don’t mesh. We tried, for several years. It was time to part ways, and that’s what it is. But no hard feelings. No hate. It’s part of life.”

At the start of the season, several players, including Harden, said there was a different vibe to the team. It was perceived that things are calmer, drama-free without Howard. “Vibe means we have different players and make them feel as comfortable as possible. That’s what I meant by different vibe,” Harden said. “That’s one of the reasons why we had training camp twice in the summer so they can get comfortable quick and then when we came to training camp at the beginning of the season, guys will be playing a lot better. That’s the reason for that.”

Having signed a $118-million contract extension that could keep him in Houston through 2020, these are now Harden’s Rockets from baseline to baseline and he is embracing the role not just completely, but more freely. “We had a leader (Howard) last year,” Harden said. “He had his opinion and his voice and I also had mine. Teammates aren’t always going to be on the same page all the time. But it’s a new year. “There was a lot going on (last year). The first few weeks McHale was gone. There was just a lot of distractions, a lot going on last season. This team’s got a new coaching staff, new players and so I make it a point and effort to know that all the guys are on the same page. Whether it’s the coaching staff or it’s the training staff or it’s the players, the front office as well. We all have one goal and that’s to win. If you’re an outcast, you’re gonna feel bad about yourself because everybody else is gonna be on the same page.”

New Atlanta Hawks big man Dwight Howard discussed his recent past in Los Angeles and Houston. Here is his discussion with Dan: Dan Patrick: Tougher to play with James Harden or Kobe Bryant? Dwight Howard: Both of those guys are great competitors. I just think the timing was off for all of us. You know we were all on different paths in our career. Kobe was at the tail end and James is on the rise. You know it was just two different types of teams. But I think that timing is important. And playing with the Hawks is the right time for me because I’m in a different space physically, mentally, and spiritually. And the Hawks two years ago we’re in a different position than they are now – especially with the new management. So I thinks it’s the perfect time to be home.

DP: Oh that’s a veteran answer there. C’mon answer it. Who’s tougher to play with Harden or Kobe? DH: Well I can’t really say man. I don’t want to stir up anything. I think both of those guys are great players. And you know despite what people say me and Kobe didn’t have one of those bad relationships. Like I said, we were in two different parts of our career. And I think a lot of the things that were going on [were] hyped up and people thought it was more than what it really was. Personally I can never hate any player or hate on any player. You know all of us are blessed to be able to play in the NBA. It’s not easy to make it here, it’s not easy to stay here you know. So I’d never want to hate on anybody else who made it. I’m proud of anyone who made it to the NBA.

Howard: “There were times I was disinterested because of situations that happened behind the scenes that really hurt me. It left me thinking, ‘This is not what I signed up for.”’ ESPN: What specifically are you referring to? Howard: “I felt like my role was being reduced. I went to [Rockets general manager] Daryl [Morey] and said, ‘I want to be more involved.’ Daryl said, ‘No, we don’t want you to be.’ My response was, ‘Why not? Why am I here?’ It was shocking to me that it came from him instead of our coach. So I said to him, ‘No disrespect to what you do, but you’ve never played the game. I’ve been in this game a long time. I know what it takes to be effective.”’

This has led to thought around the league that Howard doesn’t like Harden. But in an interview with USA TODAY’s Sam Amick, Howard says that’s not true. “People feel … like we hate each other. I have no hate in my blood for this man, you know? For what? He came from nothing. We both came from nothing. And we’re doing something that we love. We grew up playing this game for fun, and we had big dreams of making it to the NBA. So I would never hate this man because I know what it took for me to get here, and he made it. So I want him to succeed. I want us to succeed,” Howard said. “Before coming here, I watched endless hours of YouTube videos on James Harden, before he had the beard. I watched all that stuff, because I’m like, ‘Dang, this boy, he’s got so much talent.’

“We both have to figure out how we’re going to make this thing work. It’s on us. We’ve got the rest of the season, and the playoffs, and we can do it. It’s a mindset. It’s a mentality. And the whole team will fall in line when me and him are on that same page and the team sees that we’re strong together. … Collectively, if we just come together like we’re supposed to…” He pauses. “It takes time, you know?” he said. “It takes time. If we can just come together like we’re supposed to and like we want to, then I’m telling you, we can win a championship.”

Howard described his relationship with Harden as a work in progress, but he said there are no issues between them. He said the focus on them comes from their place as high-profile stars, but that they have a level of trust about how they fit with one another. “People will say what they want to say. There’s no need for me and him to worry about that,” Howard said. “Our job is to grow and get better as a team and get better as individuals. I think me and James had a really good talk before the break. We’re more on the same page than we’ve ever been. I’m always going to have his back; pretty sure he’s always going to have my back.
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October 17, 2017 | 10:28 am EDT Update
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