Former Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale, working as an analyst on NBA TV, declared that superstar James Harden “is not a leader” while praising the franchise’s acquisition of Chris Paul.
“James can see all the passes and do everything, but James is not a leader,” McHale said as part of a panel on NBA TV. “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.”
The Rockets fired McHale in November 2015, when he was 11 games into a three-year, $12 million extension he signed in the wake of Houston’s 56-win season and run to the Western Conference finals. Rockets management denied speculation at the time that Harden called for McHale’s firing. The Rockets finished that season 41-41, snapping a nine-year run of winning campaigns, but rebounded last season to go 55-27 with Mike D’Antoni winning Coach of the Year honors.
Houston, in an effort to close the gap on the Golden State Warriors, orchestrated a trade for Paul after Harden recruited the nine-time All-Star, who would have opted out of the final season of his contract if the LA Clippers hadn’t agreed to deal him to the Rockets. General manager Daryl Morey and D’Antoni have cited the desire to ease the playmaking burden on Harden as the primary reason for trading for Paul. McHale believes Harden will benefit from Paul’s leadership ability as well.
“Chris Paul is going to push him, too,” McHale said. “When he does that stab in the backcourt, doesn’t get a foul, looking at the referee, not running back, Chris Paul is going to jump his butt. That’s going to make him a better player.
“I just think Chris Paul will be good for James Harden. It will allow him to just be what he is, which is a phenomenal basketball player, not trying to lead a team. That’s just not his personality.”
McHale, who had a 193-130 record with the Rockets, also made comments that could be construed as critical of Harden before last season. McHale expressed skepticism about Harden’s transition to point guard — a take that was proved wrong when Harden led the league with 11.2 assists per game.
“You are who you are a lot of times,” McHale said during a conference call last October. “Can you change and be a facilitator first? I don’t know. Kevin Garnett, a guy I go way, way back with — Kevin Garnett was always a pass-first player. He was a pass-first player his first day of practice when he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“James is a scorer, and at the end of the day, you do fall back on what you are. James is a scorer at heart. Can you change that? … Can you be something that you’re really not for an entire 82-game season? He’s a great facilitator, great passer, and he has great vision — he really is a scorer as a basketball player.”