When the Rockets were preparing their free-agent pitch to Dwight Howard last summer, James Harden knew one thing: He wanted to be there.
Harden's first season in Houston had been successful statistically. He averaged 25.9 points (up from 16.8 in 2011-2012, his last season coming off the bench in Oklahoma City), 5.2 assists and 5.2 rebounds and finished eighth in MVP voting. Playing outside the shadow of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Harden proved that he was capable of being a No. 1 scoring option.
But Harden wanted more. With the Thunder, Harden was part of a team that won 66 percent of its games in his first three seasons and advanced to the NBA Finals in his final one. His first season in Houston ended in a first-round to defeat to his former team. So when a franchise-changing big man in Howard became available, Harden was eager to be involved in the process.
"I wanted to be a part of that meeting," Harden told SI.com this week. "I needed to be there. He's a special talent. It's hard to find someone his size who can move and do the things he can do. I wanted him to know that I wanted to win a championship as well. It wasn't going to be easy. It's easier said than done. But him being here was definitely the right step. I told him, 'We're a young team. We play the same way you want to play and we're going to give you the ball as much as possible.' "
Harden paused, smiling. "The meeting went well, obviously."
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With his surgically repaired back fully healed, Howard has looked more like the dominant center who terrorized opponents in Orlando for eight seasons than the one who spent one forgettable year with the Lakers. Howard is averaging 17.9 points and 12.5 rebounds while showing noticeably more mobility on both ends of the floor. Harden? His numbers are virtually identical from last season. His three-point percentage has dipped to 33.5, primarily due to an erratic December when he shot 30.3 percent; he's shooting 42.9 percent in January.
Houston, though, remains a work in progress. Omer Asik -- the disgruntled center who wants no part of being Howard's backup and who has struggled in limited minutes playing alongside Howard -- is still on the roster, and the combination of the Rockets' asking price for him and a $15 million balloon payment due next season could keep him there (nominally, anyway) indefinitely. An unproductive bench is contributing only 26.4 points per game, 26th in the NBA. Despite surprisingly productive play from Terrence Jones, Houston is still in the market for a floor-spacing forward who can open more room for Harden and Howard to operate.
Harden admits that even his pairing with Howard still has its rocky moments. After spending most of last season seldom passing into the post -- Asik isn't an offensive option -- the Rockets are still trying to blend Howard's power game into an up-tempo, three-point-happy offense. On Thursday, Howard scored only 11 points and the Rockets were held to a franchise-low 19 second-half points as Oklahoma City erased a 14-point halftime deficit to win 104-92 in Houston.
"We're still trying to figure out ways to play among each other," Harden said. "But I'm sure we'll figure it out. I haven't played with a big man as dominant and as athletic as Dwight. He draws so much attention under the basket. I like to get to the basket. I'm still trying to get adjusted to him being under the rim. Once I figure it out and we get it rolling, we're going to be a problem."
The NBA's Most Improved Player is often the most subjective of the season-ending awards. Does one pick a bench player who becomes a solid starter? A burgeoning star who takes his game to the next level? A high draft pick who lives up to his potential? There are many different criteria, and those criteria are often spread out among voters.
Lance Stephenson certainly fits into one of the criterion. Last season, Stephenson emerged as a capable starter for Indiana. Known for his dogged defense, Stephenson was a welcome addition to the first unit in place of an injured Danny Granger and was a key contributor in Indiana's run to the Eastern Conference finals.
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This season, Stephenson is still a rugged defender -- he is in the top 10 in the NBA in defensive rating and defensive win shares, according to Basketball-Reference -- but the former second-round pick has developed into a dynamic offensive player. He's improved his scoring (13.7), field-goal percentage (50.2) and three-point percentage (35.7) while nearly doubling his rebounding (6.6) and assists (5.1).
Ask teammates about Stephenson and the answers are similar: The 23-year-old guard from Brooklyn, N.Y., has always had talent; he just needed the maturity to go with it.
"We have been telling him for three years that once you mature, the sky is the limit for you," point guard George Hill said. "He has been stubborn about it. But that's him. It's where he comes from. But slowly but surely he has been absorbing stuff, like a sponge. His confidence is extremely high. It's at an all-time level. He always had this potential, even in high school. He just had to tap into it, and now he has become a great player."
The Pacers may have a tough decision to make with Stephenson this summer. An unrestricted free agent, Stephenson is in line for a big contract after being paid $1 million this season. Two rival executives said they expect Stephenson to command between $7 million and $9 million annually in a multiyear deal. The Pacers, even with Granger's $14 million contract coming off the books, are committed to about $65 million for next season (which includes key reserve Luis Scola's partially guaranteed $4.9 million salary), as Paul George begins a five-year extension that could be worth $90 million.
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Stephenson says he intends to stay in Indiana, and the Pacers are clearly the best fit. The Pacers provide structure for Stephenson, from the executive (Larry Bird) who took a chance on him with the 40th pick in the 2010 draft, to the elite coach (Frank Vogel) who has invested so much time in developing him, to the locker room that knows how to police him. Bird told NBA.com that he intends to make Stephenson "a great offer" but hinted that if Stephenson's price is too high, "we'll get somebody else."
For a team that places a premium on continuity, re-signing Stephenson will be a top priority. It remains to be seen if it will get done.
Greek teen a bright spot for Bucks
The presence of Giannis Antetokounmpo -- the Greek rookie who is still learning English -- led to a few laughs early in Milwaukee's training camp. One time, Antetokounmpo was told to defend O.J. Mayo. Only Antetokounmpo wasn't quite sure who that was. When pointed toward Mayo, Antetokounmpo did what came naturally: He went over and introduced himself. "I am Giannis," Antetokounmpo told Mayo. "I will defend you."
"A few people told me about that," Bucks coach Larry Drew said with a laugh. "He's a really funny kid."
And a really good player, too. Any re-draft of the 2013 class would have to include Antetokounmpo, the 15th pick, in the top five, maybe as high as No. 1. Antetokounmpo, 19, the youngest player in the NBA, is averaging a respectable 6.8 points on 45.7 percent shooting. At nearly 6-foot-11 -- Antetokounmpo has grown 1½ inches since being drafted last June -- and a spindly 205 pounds, Antetokounmpo is still prone to being pushed around. But his occasional flashes of brilliance -- a 13-point, 11-rebound effort against Oklahoma City last week, for example -- are strong indicators of a bright future.
"He certainly has done some other things that have opened our eyes," Drew said. "I've watched this kid for a length of time. I went over and saw him this summer. I saw some potential there. Could it translate to the NBA? That was the big question for everybody, especially when he was giving up size and strength. We really didn't know he would blossom the way he has blossomed. The big question was, Can we kind of get him in for a few minutes at the beginning? Now he has proved he belongs here. He's a terrific player in the open court, where he just makes plays. He's a willing passer. You run with him and you're open, you will get the ball. He plays the right way."
With the Bucks headed for the lottery, Drew can afford to allow Antetokounmpo to play through his mistakes. Antetokounmpo is sixth among rookies with 23 minutes per game. But even as Antetokounmpo adjusts, Drew continues to be pleasantly surprised with how rapidly he is developing.
"The biggest surprise is how fast he has picked up things," Drew said. "When you come from a different country, there is that language barrier. That was my biggest concern with him, understanding NBA terminology. Could he understand it? Could he adapt? Sometimes adapt means making certain adjustments through the course of the game. He picked it up pretty fast. He doesn't just grasp the concepts but adapts to the different things.
"I have to live with some of his mistakes. He's 19 and this is a whole new experience for him. The reward will be there. This kid is in the game, and what better way to learn than to be in the game. We're committed to him being in the game and I'm committed to allowing him to grow and make mistakes. Long term, it's going to be great for this organization."