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The Rockets Are Counting on James Harden to be the Leader This Year

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On the surface, sports are a series of results, with winners and losers of in-game battles that all lead to a final score. The slew of final scores yield final standings, and eventually it all leads to one team as champion. However, sports are at their most engrossing when the human side bleeds into the box score, to the point where sports so mirrors life that we can’t look away, either in admiration or because it’s just a freaking train wreck.

It’s there — at “freaking train wreck” — where we find last season’s Houston Rockets. On the long list of Houston sports disappointments, the 2015-2016 Rockets may well be at the very top, not because they were the worst team in our city’s history (they weren’t, not even close) but because they were the biggest underachiever.

A trip to the NBA’s Western Conference Finals in the summer of 2015 had Rockets fans primed for even bigger things last season. Instead, their head coach, Kevin McHale, was fired 11 games into the season, and the Rockets barely sneaked into the playoffs as a dysfunctional 41-41 eight seed, before bowing out in a five-game whimper against Golden State in the first round of the playoffs.

What made last year’s six-month abomination of a season so frustrating yet morbidly compelling was the aforementioned human side — the fact that it was played under a dark cloud of discontent born of the passive-aggressive mutual disdain between the team’s two star players, James Harden and Dwight Howard. Forget about being on the same page — Harden and Howard were in different books all last season.

In retrospect, the three-year Harden/Howard “marriage” had all the earmarks of an actual, real-life couple’s relationship — there was the euphoric honeymoon phase when Howard signed here in 2013, some ups and downs for the first couple of years, before a final realization by one partner in the couple (Harden) that he didn’t really need or like the other one all that much. Hell, James Harden even went through an “apathetically letting himself go physically” phase to start last season, when he showed up at training camp overweight after a summer of partying with Khloe Kardashian!

The eventual confirmation that the dissolution of general manager Daryl Morey’s two-headed brainchild was imminent came on a Howard appearance on TNT’s studio show in early May after the Rockets had been bounced from the playoffs, when Charles Barkley (playing the role of Dr. Phil, I suppose) grilled Howard with questions about his relationship with Harden and the Rockets’ failure last season. Howard was clearly giving answers that indicated he wanted to run his own crew, not play second fiddle to Harden. Two months later, the Harden/Howard divorce became final when Howard opted out of his contract with the Rockets, and moved back home to sign with the Atlanta Hawks.

Long before he even traded for Harden, in October 2012, Morey had a strategy of assembling three All-Star caliber players to achieve the goal of winning an NBA title. Now, with Howard gone, Morey’s focus has shifted. Instead of trying to overwhelm with star power, the Rockets will try to leverage the symbiotic power of Harden’s game to the hilt, assembling an über-complementary group around the four-time All-Star they hope will yield better chemistry and better results.

“James is one of the top three or four players we’ve ever had here, and he wants to win as much as Olajuwon and Drexler and everybody else,” said owner Leslie Alexander. “I think we have one of the top three players in the league, and I think our new guys can shoot, which we didn’t have last year.”

Indeed, if the playoff loss to Golden State underscored anything, it was the need to find sharpshooters as the end point to the numerous open three-point shots generated by Harden for his teammates. To that end, the Rockets spent a combined $33 million annually over the next four seasons on forward Ryan Anderson and guard Eric Gordon, both career 38 percent shooters from three-point range.

“We’ve been able to get players from the bottom up who fit a style of play where our coaching staff is very comfortable,” said Morey at Rockets Media Day. “We have big goals this year. It reminds me of a couple years ago, where all the talk was about ‘How can we survive without this player or that player?’”

While Howard’s departure probably improves the locker-room chemistry, his rebounding and shot blocking will need to be replaced, which makes third-year center Clint Capela one of the most important X factors on this team. Capela, a beanpole his first two seasons in the league, has finally added some muscle to his frame to take the 82-game (and hopefully, beyond) pounding.

“For us to have the season we want to have, a deep playoff run, Clint is going to have to take a big step forward — going from 15 to 20 minutes against [backups] to 25-plus minutes against frontline guys,” Morey said. “He’s added a lot of muscle, and worked extremely hard.”

Tasked with putting the whole thing together is 65-year-old head coach Mike D’Antoni, whose best work came in Phoenix, where he averaged 58 wins from 2004-2005 through 2007-2008, deploying a frenetic, entertaining, fast-break style orchestrated by two-time MVP Steve Nash. Failed stints with the Knicks and Lakers following D’Antoni’s run in Phoenix did not dissuade the Rockets from hiring him, nor do they dampen Harden’s enthusiasm for running D’Antoni’s system in Nash’s facilitator role.

“[D’Antoni] makes really good players better players; he has a formula that is proven, and it works,” said Harden.

“James is an unbelievable distributor of the basketball; he can see the court, and we want to take advantage of that,” D’Antoni assessed.

While D’Antoni wasn’t the head coaching hire Rockets fans were hoping for, if the team is going to push its chips into the middle of the table on Harden, then it makes sense to hire a coach who is proven in constructing a single-star-centric system. While defense will appear optional at times for this team, D’Antoni’s approach will certainly be a more watchable brand of basketball than last season’s.

Harden’s chops as a basketball talent are undeniable, but the 800-pound gorilla in the room is the risk that the Rockets are taking in going all-in on Harden’s leadership. While Howard was the one cut loose, Harden was far from blameless in the team’s failures last season, despite his posting an historic per-game stat line of 29 points, six rebounds and seven assists, and becoming only the fourth player in league history to do so.

That said, emboldened by a new four-year max contract, Harden appears to have taken ownership of this team, organizing player-only workouts in Miami during the offseason and becoming a far more vocal leader.

“Just hanging out, getting to know each other, that carries over to the court,” Harden said when asked about the benefit of the workouts. “There were a lot of distractions and a lot going on last season. This is a new coaching staff, new players; we want to get everybody on the same page. Players, coaches, front office, training staff…we all have one goal, one mind-set, and that’s to win.”

“They’re committed to being together and making the chemistry work. Anytime you do something like that, it’s positive,” D’Antoni concurred. “They’re serious about trying to have a great season, but so are 29 other teams.”

“James has shown a lot of leadership this offseason, and the players are taking ownership of the team,” said Morey.

While Harden’s renewed commitment to the game and to his team are certainly positive developments, for many Rocket fans there is an emptiness to Harden’s actions and words until they translate into winning once again, as they did two seasons ago when he was runner-up to Steph Curry for MVP of the league. One summer of sweating with his new teammates doesn’t erase the previous drunken summer of repeatedly popping up on TMZ. Harden was essentially handed the on-court keys to the franchise this summer, but he must re-earn everyone’s trust.

“Last year was frustrating, but the love and excitement wasn’t there,” Harden said, in perhaps one more subtle drive-by on Howard. “I realized, I gotta change, get back to how I was. I have to get better at the things I can control.

“I gotta be better, and I will be better, as a basketball player, and as a person.”

SEASON PREDICTION: 48-34 (fifth in Western Conference)

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanTPendergast or email him at sean.pendergast@cbsradio.com.

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