James Harden is the Rockets’ franchise player. He has finished runner-up for MVP two of the last three years. All five of the Houston teams he has led have reached the playoffs, and one advanced to the Western Conference finals.
But he’s an indifferent defender and sometimes runs too nonchalantly.
That’s where Chris Paul comes in. Paul brings plenty of intensity and leadership to Rockets – just too late for Kevin McHale, whom Houston fired as coach in 2015.
McHale speaking to Charles Barkley on NBATV, as transcribed by Rahul Lal of HoopsHype:
James is not a leader. He tried being a leader last year and doing that stuff, I think Chris Paul is going to help him do that stuff and get back to just hoop and play. On every team you need to have a voice, you have to have somebody that when he says something, everybody listens. Look, if James tells you ‘Chuck, you’ve got to play better [defense]!’ Are you going to listen to him? You’re kidding me! I lived through it, everybody in the locker room [shook their head].
I just think that Chris Paul will be good for James Harden. It will allow him to be what he is which is a phenomenal basketball player – not trying to lead a team, that’s just not his personality.
So, it’s understandable that McHale would call out Harden publicly like this.
The former coach is right to a degree (though probably goes a little too far). By resting on defense, even if it’s understandable given his massive offensive load, Harden undercut his leadership ability. That was compounded by Harden seemingly not realizing it and sometimes acting as if his voice still carried maximum weight in the locker room. That could not have been easy for McHale to work around.
It won’t necessarily be seamless for Paul, either. Ideally, a team’s best leader is its best player. That won’t be the case in Houston. Will Harden cede control to Paul? Even if he does, will Paul’s new teammates immediately rally behind him?
The dynamic has changed, but Harden’s personality still invites awkwardness in the Rockets’ power structure. As much as everyone is watching how the guards mesh on the court, attention should be paid to this aspect, too.