How James Harden reacted to the way his 2014-15 season ended said everything.
In May, the final buzzer sounded on the Houston Rockets‘ season with a 104-90 loss to the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. Harden shook some hands, hugged a few players and walked off the court.
But in the locker room, his tears flowed.
Since that night, while Houston’s offseason mainly focused on branding and marketing, Harden has used that playoff loss and the anger from it to fuel his engine this season. That engine fires up Wednesday night against the Denver Nuggets in the Rockets’ season opener.
And that desire for an NBA title burns hot.
“You can use anger,” Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley said. “It’s fuel for motivation. He’s already achieved a lot as a player. Most players wouldn’t be [staying long] after practice, and what he wants is a championship. He understands for his personal success and to be considered great in this league, you have to win a championship. It’s all about championships.”
Winning equals respect
Indeed, so many of Harden’s peers also are striving for that greatness, that elite level of respect only an NBA championship brings. The landscape is littered with great players who have yet to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy: Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, John Wall, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. They are in the same universe with Harden: No rings and hungry.
“That’s why we play the game — to win championships,” Harden said. “If you don’t win a championship, you came up short, you failed. That’s why this league is so great. You have the top, really good players who sacrifice, doing whatever it takes for their team to win.”
The Western Conference, however, is a perilous place to chase that dream. Last season, seven teams won at least 50 games. In the East? Three. The Rockets won the Southwest Division, but every team in that division made the playoffs.
Likewise, the caliber of player in the West is equally elevated. Eleven Western Conference players earned MVP votes. In the East, only LeBron James earned any votes.
“That’s why we play the game — to win championships. If you don’t win a championship, you came up short, you failed. That’s why this league is so great. You have the top, really good players who sacrifice, doing whatever it takes for their team to win.”
“It’s sickening, but it’s what it is and it’s the way the league is built now, everybody is very competitive,” veteran guard Jason Terry said of the West.
And this offseason, it only got worse in the Southwest, with San Antonio upgrading its roster with free agent LaMarcus Aldridge. In the Pacific Division, the Los Angeles Clippers added former Eastern Conference veterans Paul Pierce and Lance Stephenson after re-signing DeAndre Jordan. Meanwhile, New Orleans still has Anthony Davis, and Golden State is the reigning champion.
“Who doesn’t notice it?” Harden said. “There’s more than five, even the Pelicans, they have a really good team, they made the playoffs last year, they got a new coach who came from the Warriors. You have the teams in Texas, you got the Thunder who wasn’t healthy last year that’s really good. You got Memphis that’s always good. San Antonio. Warriors.”
The Rockets are not without their own major addition. They kept the core group together and acquired Ty Lawson from Denver, an excellent point guard whose main duties will be to push the pace and take ballhandling pressures off Harden.
“All these teams are good,” Harden said. “The Utah Jazz are really good defensively, and making a lot of noise, you can go on and on. That’s why the NBA is the NBA.”
Harden’s tough lesson
Terry has seen this before.
Dirk Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks lost to the Miami Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals. Just 27, Nowitzki wouldn’t get back to Finals for five seasons, finally winning it all at age 32. A member of that 2010-11 Mavericks squad, Terry sees quite a few similarities to Nowitzki in his current teammate Harden.
“A lot [of similarities],” said Terry, a 16-year veteran. “We challenged [Dirk] to be more of a vocal leader. But the second part was [convincing him] to not only be a stat guy but be a more impactful stat guy. Not just doing it with points every night, but doing it consistently all around in all phases of the game and making your teammates better.”
Harden is in his prime and Terry says he thinks the 26-year-old is learning the same lessons, burning for a title the way Nowitzki did.
“I’ve seen that progression in James and it’s still new to him,” Terry said. “This is only his third year with basically having his own team. I like where he is in his progression and he understands where he needs to go to reach that upper level.”
Harden understands the championship window is not open forever. He knows he’ll have to help elevate his teammates to achieve that goal.
“It doesn’t always end up how you want it,” he said. “You might have a great team one year and the next year you might have a not-so-great team. It’s all about bringing a team together and sacrificing and striving to do one thing and that’s win a championship.”