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Rockets: How Dwight Howard sparked growth in James Harden and a culture change

OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 9: Dwight Howard #12 and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets while facing the Golden State Warriors on February 9, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 9: Dwight Howard #12 and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets while facing the Golden State Warriors on February 9, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
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James Harden and the Houston Rockets are famously good at communicating among themselves, but it wasn’t always this way. Dwight Howard‘s time with them helped make the team what they are now.

In an interview with The Player’s Tribune on Thursday, James Harden referenced conversation between teammates as being crucial to the success of next season’s integration of Carmelo Anthony to the Houston Rockets.

“When you have that many talented, high-IQ guys around who love to communicate, and love to figure things out, the job is easy. The job gets hard when you don’t communicate,” he said.

Harden’s philosophy proved successful in the Rockets’ incorporation of Chris Paul last year; He referenced their league-leading regular season record in the interview with a smile. Based on that success, he has little reason to doubt that it will work equally well in Anthony’s case.

But looking back to Dwight Howard’s shaky tenure with the team, and particularly his final season with them in 2016, it’s apparent that Harden’s approach wasn’t always so heavily based in communication.

Why this was the case

The underlying issue between Harden and Howard was based more in the team’s offensive style than in any personal disdain for each other. Howard wanted to get more touches with his back to the basket, but coaches wanted him to replace those with pick-and-rolls and screens set for Harden.

Points were coming more efficiently from Harden-initiated pick-and-roll possessions than from Howard’s post-ups, and it was the obvious move to utilize Howard as a screen setter rather than letting him ball-stop down low. But he wanted to play his way regardless, and his discontent with his role created a rift between him and Harden and among the team as a whole.

The Rockets barely made the playoffs with a 41-41 record that season, and Howard would move on to his hometown Atlanta Hawks after the 2015-16 season. He said in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2017 that an element of communication was missing on both sides of he and Harden’s relationship during his run in Houston:

“James is not the kind of guy who is going to say, ‘Yo, man, you got a problem?’ and I’m not either. 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.”

Harden learned the same lesson from their issues, evident by his continuously expressed emphasis on communication between the Rockets being key to their prosperity.

The improvements with Chris Paul and Coach D’Antoni

Rockets Head Coach Mike D’Antoni mentioned Harden and Paul’s mutual understanding of this concept to Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle:

“There’s a mutual respect. [Harden and Paul] both have the same goals. They also know that whoever brings up the argument first usually comes from a good place. … They don’t bring up anything other than, ‘How do we get better?’

He goes on to explain that not only the stars communicate well, but the entirety of the team. It’s an image of the environment around the Rockets that sharply contrasts the one from when Howard was in town.

If bringing in Chris Paul was a test for Harden, then Howard was the bombed pretest that motivated him to prepare for the real deal. Carmelo Anthony’s inclusion could represent the final exam: one last roadblock between the Rockets and a championship.

Next. James Harden is using the offseason criticism as motivation

The Rockets may not be the team they are today without Howard’s term with them. Harden learned lessons from him and Howard’s dysfunctional relationship that helped him grow into a better teammate and leader. These lessons strengthened his link with Paul and the rest of his teammates, and they’ll continue to be proved useful in the season to come.

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