HOUSTON — James Harden fired back at his former head coach after Kevin McHale declared on NBA TV this week that the Rockets superstar is “not a leader,” criticism that Harden considered a sign of McHale’s character.
“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.”
McHale, who coached Harden for three-plus seasons in Houston, made the comments as part of an NBA TV panel discussion on the Rockets, praising the franchise’s offseason acquisition of Chris Paul in part due to his leadership ability.
“James can see all the passes and do everything, but James is not a leader,” McHale said. “He tried being a leader last year, tried doing all 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.
“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, ‘You’ve got to play better D,’ are you going to listen to him? I lived through it. Believe me, everybody in the locker room did this [put their head down with their hand on their forehead].’ Every time he mentioned defense, everybody would put their head down.”
McHale was fired in November 2015, despite being only 11 games into a four-year, $12 million contract given to the coach in the wake of the Rockets’ trip to the Western Conference finals the previous season. Harden believes bitterness about the firing played a significant role in McHale criticizing him.
“Sure. And I had nothing to do with it,” Harden said. “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.”
Harden did agree with McHale’s analysis that Paul, who has a reputation as a no-nonsense leader, would push him to be a better player by confronting him at times. But Harden said that type of interaction will go both ways among the Rockets’ co-stars.
“I need that. I need it. That makes me better,” Harden said. “And he’s the same way.”
Harden, an All-Star in each of his five seasons with the Rockets, was especially bothered by McHale’s criticism because of the work he has done to become a better leader. He regularly reads books on leadership with Jason Biles, the Rockets’ director of performance rehabilitation and associate athletic trainer. Harden, who recruited Paul to join the Rockets, regularly organizes team social outings and offseason activities, such as the voluntary minicamp Houston’s players held in the Bahamas this summer.
“All I can do is talk about my experience, and he’s been unbelievably great,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Obviously, I got Coach of the Year last year because of him and the other 10 guys on the team. He’s been great with everything I asked. I asked a lot of him last year. I asked him to be the point guard. I asked him to talk in D. I asked a lot of things, and he responded great. We had great chemistry. He’s the first one to get them all together in the summertime or take them out during the year to keep the team together. So I didn’t see it. He’s been great for me.”