James Harden had just finished going around the world, taking shots from different spots above the three-point line, long after the Houston Rockets had completed their morning shootaround on Wednesday at Toyota Center. Some went in. Some went out. But the shots kept going up. Same rotation. Same flow.
As he walked toward the locker room, Harden was asked if he was aware that later that evening he was going to face a team that had passed on a chance to acquire him last summer.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Harden said.
According to multiple league sources, the Wizards balked at a proposed deal for Harden in part because owner Ted Leonsis was unwilling to give him the five-year, $80 million maximum contract that he was seeking. Harden said the snub wouldn’t give him any extra motivation when the two teams square off at 8 p.m.
“You know what? No. I don’t get bothered or intrigued by stuff like that, no,” Harden said. “I mean, I guess I wasn’t a fit for that organization or whatever they are moving forward to. What I can control is me going out there and playing my hardest and helping my team win games.”
Harden, the NBA’s fifth-leading scorer at 24.7 points per game, has helped elevate one of the league’s youngest teams back to relevance as it rebuilds in the post-Yao Ming era. The Rockets currently have the 10th best record in the highly-competitive Western Conference and that is largely because of Harden, who has scored at least 30 points in five games and has settled in quite nicely after arriving in a blockbuster deal from the Oklahoma City Thunder in late October.
“It’s coming along very well,” Harden said. “I think my teammates and coaches have done a great job of welcoming me and putting me in position to be successful. I know it was a tough transition, but it’s a new chapter, new stage in my life.”
He added: “There are a lot of situations where it could’ve been worse, as far as, a team may not want me and a lot of other stuff may be going on. But I think this team really wants me here and we can build something special.”
After taking a back seat with the Thunder, Harden has taken on a leadership role in Houston. He has tried to pass along the same work ethic that he developed in Oklahoma City, where Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook created a culture in which you were getting worse if you weren’t constantly focused on getting better.
“We’re special. We’ve got a lot of young guys who want to work hard and are willing to do whatever it takes,” Harden said. “I’m settling down and just trying to get the guys to work.”
While getting prepared for the Wizards, Harden was also looking to get his legs out from under him after missing the previous game with a sprained right ankle. “I feel good,” he said. “My ankle feels a lot better.”
And Harden said he wouldn’t expend much time thinking about what may or may not have been in Washington: “I’m here in Houston and trying to win games.”