James Harden’s leadership has been an open question since he made the move from OKC to Houston with most giving him a below average grade. Last season, with Mike D’Antoni playing the offense whisperer to James Harden’s iso game, Harden altered the perception. He led the team with his playmaking and offense and seemed to turn a corner. Then that last game against the Spurs happened when Harden’s game disappeared, and then so did Harden. He appeared lost in a cloud of judgment. Score or pass? Make my teammates better or make me better? It was one of the worst playoff performances in a closeout game by a future Hall of Famer on his home floor. Harden seemed to freeze. And the old Harden narrative was back. Great player. Can’t lead. Can’t lead worth a damn.
But what is leadership? And why don’t people think James Harden has it?
The nature of leadership is to demand the best without apology. Bruised feelings are the collateral damage but leaders don’t care, as they eye the big picture. Leadership is a combination of boldness, vision, fearlessness, confidence, compulsivity, a little bit of insanity and conflict. Leaders don’t shy away from confrontation, they are drawn to it because the consequence of perfection reaps positive outcomes. Show me a leader and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t care about social media likes or Facebook hits.
James Harden vehemently defended his leadership style particularly after it was questioned by Kevin McHale. In response to Kevin McHale, James Harden went the low hanging fruit route and called the Hall of Famer McHale bitter and a clown. Which McHale probably would say proves his point. Leaders are able to handle critique without name calling and throwing shade. In fact, in McHale’s comments he praised Harden’s basketball skill. And correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t McHale being paid to give his opinion as an analyst for NBATV.
This is what McHale said yesterday about Harden.
“James can see all the passes and do everything but 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.” (Kevin McHale)
McHale was implying that Harden isn’t listened to. I know for a fact that Dwight Harden didn’t listen to Harden. And when Howard mocked Harden when Howard was on the bench, he did so because he knew he could. He had that freedom.
Harden isn’t a vocal guy. He isn’t the type to make players accountable. Is he getting better? Yes. Is he Chris Paul? No. No. No.
But Chris Paul has his warts too. The Chris Paul problem in L.A. was that he said too much, he criticized too much, he micro-managed too much. He was accountable. Paul had some playoff blunders that he took ownership of but the quieter, more sensitive players wanted Chris to just shut up. He talked incessantly and it was repetitive. He led and then he criticized. A part of leadership is letting your teammates have a voice too; it’s democracy more than it is dictatorship. Even the Cavs get exhausted by LeBron James. It comes down to how to lead and be effective, to know when to turn the volume up high and when to back up a little bit.
Leadership, though, doesn’t win games by itself. You need players, veterans, skill, guts to win in the NBA. Mike D’Antoni’s system, to be effective, needs a quick point guard who dribbles to create space and freely gives up the ball . The give up the ball part is a question mark and we will see how Chris Paul plays in his system or does D’Antoni add a wrinkle for a gifted and strong willed figure like Paul.
For sure, Paul loves the pressurized moments, those instances when James Harden has deer in the headlights. Instantly, the partnership takes a lot of pressure off a moody Harden. But leadership isn’t one of those simplistic evaluations: yes or no. Harden does lead. He doesn’t lead in the willful style as Paul who carries the team over the finish line. Harden’s leadership is offensively oriented and in the absence of real pressure.
Leadership is not about gestures. It’s about wanting others to follow you because they trust you. They believe in you. It’s about being accountable when you have a miserable season. It’s about making the team better by any means necessary. It’s not about making gestures that ring false and hollow. There are a lot of fake leaders in the NBA. They don’t put everything on the line because they don’t want to take all the heat that comes from that.
What McHale seems to be talking about in reference to Harden as a bad leader is that he has a non-confrontational style that leaders just don’t possess. Leaders first hold themselves accountable, then they hold everyone else accountable. Harden went through an entire season and didn’t attempt any effort on defense. That’s not leadership.
Leadership is that one trait, scouts will tell you, you cannot create in a lab. You must be born with it. It’s not shame to lack leadership cred. Carmelo Anthony isn’t much of a leader. Neither is LaMarcus Aldridge or DeMarcus Cousins or Gordon Hayward. Damian Lillard came into the league as a rookie and instantly led the Blazers. Ditto a healthy Derrick Rose. Leadership isn’t about if you are quiet or not. Tim Duncan was a quiet leader. Kobe Bryant was a confrontational leader. So was Kevin Garnett. The question is, can you carry your team, can you will them? Do you demand perfectionism from yourself and then it trickles down to your teammates?
When Harden and Howard were teammates, who was going to make the players accountable and fight through the imperfections and laziness and negativity? Dwight Howard is passive aggressive and desperate to be liked. James Harden pretty much stays in his lane.Harden doesn’t thrive on conflict. As an experiment, the Harden-Howard marriage failed disastrously but it was not the players fault. Morey didn’t do his homework well enough. Talent needs complimentary characteristics and chemistry.
An answer to a prayer, those Dwight Howard dog day years are gone. Chris Paul is here. Paul is as anal a personality as you are going to get. Paul was President of his high school class. He is President of the Players Union. He has led everywhere he has been. It hasn’t always been smooth and Paul, at times, needs to tone it down, but the Rockets won’t have leadership issues in 2017-18. It is a gift to James Harden that he can be James Harden.
You better believe Chris Paul is going to be Chris Paul.
photo via llananba