This one started with Kevin McHale, who coached James Harden for three-plus seasons in Houston, lightly but directly criticizing Harden’s capacity as a team leader, during an NBA TV panel discussion this week:
“I think [adding Chris Paul] makes them a much better team, because you had James Harden with the ball, fantastic with the ball, a great passer, the guy’s got phenomenal vision—talk about vision, James can see all the passes and do everything. But James is not a leader. He tried being a leader last year, tried doing that stuff. I think Chris Paul is going to help him just kind of get back into just being able to hoop and play and stuff like that. 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, ‘Chuck, you’ve got to play better D,’ are you listening to him? Like, you’ve got to be kidding me! I lived through it, believe me everybody in the locker room did this [forehead slap]. Every time he’d mention defense everybody would [forehead slap], like ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’
You know, Chris Paul is going to push him, too. Chris Paul is not going to, you know, when he does that stab in the backcourt, doesn’t get the foul, looking at the referee, not running back, Chris Paul is going to jump his butt. And that’s going to make him a better player. So 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, and not trying to lead a team. That’s just not his personality.”
There are two separate criticisms, here: one, that James Harden may not have the credibility as a defender to hold his teammates accountable for their own defensive effort; and two, that James Harden may not have the personality for leadership, generally. I tend to think the first criticism is generally valid—if a player is known among his/her teammates for lackluster effort, probably those teammates will not readily accept effort prompts from that teammate. I also tend to think the second criticism is lame—if a player kicks butt, they probably don’t need to be pounding their chest in order for their teammates to listen up when they speak. Kawhi Leonard, for example, probably doesn’t have to say much to be viewed as a leader on the Spurs—he kicks butt, the coaches support him, he’s vital to the team. Personality isn’t necessarily central to leadership, is what I’m saying, and probably doesn’t need to be broached in a discussion of why James Harden may not be ideally suited to the task of assuming leadership on an NBA team.
But! James Harden does suck on defense, and primarily for effort reasons. McHale’s not wrong, but his comments are pretty dismissive of any work Harden might’ve done over the years to wield whatever credibility he does have for the benefit of the team. This was not lost on Harden, who, according to this Tim McMahon report, was pretty pissed:
“He’s a clown, honestly,” Harden said after the Rockets’ open practice Saturday at the Toyota Center. “I did anything and everything he asked me to do. I’ve tried to lead this team every day since I stepped foot here in Houston. To go on air and just downplay my name when honestly he’s never taught me anything to be a leader...
“...But I’ve done a great job. The organization, my coaches, you can ask any of those guys how I’ve worked extremely hard every single day to better [myself] obviously as a basketball player but be a leader as well. To go on air and downplay my name like that, it just shows his character. I usually don’t go back and forth on social media with anybody or with interviews, but I’m going to stand up for myself, and there it is. But you just don’t go and do that. It shows what type of person he is.”
“I’m just here to do my job, compete at the highest level I can. But when you’re here, you’re face to face and you’re telling me one thing — how great of a player you are, how you’re lucky that he’s able to be a part of this process — and then you go back just a few years later and basically just say the opposite, it just shows your character, shows who you really are. I’m not that type of person. I don’t operate that way. I don’t say things to somebody behind their back or tell them one thing or go on air and say another thing.”
There’s some stuff in that report about Harden reading leadership manuals, and a pretty glowing review from Mike D’Antoni, Harden’s current coach. Mostly, this is a stupid thing to be fighting about—James Harden is one of the tiny handful of best basketball players on earth, and his team won 55 games last season, and the addition of Chris Paul makes them absolutely terrifying—not because Paul is notoriously an insane micromanager of teammates, but because he, like Harden, is really, really good at basketball. Let’s not overthink this.