Tuesday October 20th, 2015

HOUSTON — Last month, an hour or so after Houston completed a preseason practice, James Harden emerged from the Rockets locker room dressed in sweats and a tee shirt, with one pair of what has become an absurd number of Adidas sneakers on his feet. Oh you didn’t hear? Last August, Harden signed a 13-year, $200 million deal with Adidas. In September, Harden was photographed wearing a pair of Nike’s. In response, Adidas sent Harden a truckload of sneakers. That’s not a cliché. They literally dispatched a truck filled with sneakers to his house.

“You should see it,” Harden said. “They are everywhere.”

Yeah, it’s good to be James Harden. You were runner-up for MVP and took home the players version of the award last summer. You are coming off your best statistical season (27.4 points/7.0 assists/5.7 rebounds) and are credited for taking defense seriously for the first time. You strapped a battered Rockets team on your back, pulled them out of a 3–1 deficit against the Clippers in the conference semifinals and led Houston to its first conference finals since Hakeem Olajuwon wore a Rockets uniform.

Things are good ... right?

“Oh yeah, we’re moving in a good direction,” Harden said. Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve improved, we’ve gotten better. That’s what you want do, you want to improve every single year. Last year we added, like, five or six key pieces. We got to the West finals. Now we have a year under our belt, to where we can actually go through an entire training camp together and kind of know the ins and outs of each individual. So we’re more comfortable, I think. You look at the teams that win, they’re more comfortable, you know that they’ve been together. It’s rare that you see a team that they come together for one year and win a championship. Our last year was a good steppingstone for us, and then now, this year, we’re all in.”

Inside Harden’s starry summer: New shoe deal, NBA 2K16 and more

How do the Rockets get better? Ty Lawson helps. The ex-Nuggets point guard comes with some baggage—a July DUI arrest, which prompted Denver to immediately look to move him—but there is no questioning his talent. With Lawson and Patrick Beverley on board, Houston has a skilled offense/defense point guard combination.

“Ty is going to help a lot, just because I can put up the ball a lot more and let him handle a lot more catch-and-shoot opportunities,” Harden said. “It will help my defense, as well, being able to play both ends of the floor at an extremely high level.”

How can Harden get better? He has an answer for that too. If there was one criticism of Harden last season it was that he would frequently exhibit bad body language. If a teammate took an errant shot, Harden would scowl or slump his shoulders. If he committed a turnover, he did little to hide his frustration.

“I get frustrated, and when I do I know my teammates are looking at me like, ‘He’s frustrated we’re messing up, right now,’” Harden said. “So times like that, I have to just stay level and make sure that no matter what’s going on with me, I’m feeding out positive energy to my teammates, so they’re going to be locked in no matter what. And I think that’s going to carry us a long way, even in postseason.”

John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated

Physically, Harden will admit last season was a grind. He played in 81 games and led the league in total minutes (2,981). With Dwight Howard limited to 41 games and Beverley sidelined for the playoffs, the strain on Harden was considerable. Harden has always been a healthy eater—nutrition habits instilled with him in Oklahoma City stay with him today—but he needed to give his body a break. Which is why Harden decided to get away from the game this off-season. For a month, he didn’t pick up a basketball, the first time he has ever taken that kind of extended break. He traveled. He rested. He got regular massages. He blocked out the game.

“I just tried to stay away, tried to clear my mind and kind of just reset and focus on just my body,” Harden said. “I tried to eat right, tried to get in good condition and focus on other things. Because basketball, once I’m playing and I’m in training camp and the season, I’ll catch a rhythm. That’s the easy part. But I needed to focus and figure other things out, my body being the most important.”

As Harden begins this season, he is facing an even bigger challenge than the last one. Golden State is still the defending champs. San Antonio got better. Oklahoma City will welcome Kevin Durant back to a deeper team than the one he left before his foot injury. The Clippers are still there. Every night in the Western Conference figures to bring a tough test. Harden gets it. But he knows that his team is as talented as it was last season. He says his relationship with Howard on the court is as strong as it has ever been. And he believes the lessons learned from last season will help him be a better player in this one.

“It’s a long season and I have got to try not to get too overwhelmed,” Harden said. “Just stay level throughout the entire season. There’s going to be some times where I struggle, there’s going to be some times where I’m playing really, really well. So, no matter where I am, just stay level. Stay level and continue to work, and continue to just focus on the one goal.”

MAHONEY: Rockets with one of NBA’s best benches | West storylines

A championship is the goal, obviously. Harden has come close before. In 2012, Harden was the sixth man on Oklahoma City’s Finals team. He remembers that loss. That loss hurt. Losing with Houston, Harden says, hurt more.

“Obviously, in the Finals, you’re so close,” Harden said. “That was a learning experience. I didn’t really have all the pressure on me to go out there and carry the team, or whatever, every single night. “Last year, in Game 5 [against Golden State, when we lost, when I had 12 turnovers, that hurt me more than anything, because I pride myself on creating opportunities for my teammates, giving them easy shots, making sure everybody’s good. And when I was turning the basketball over, I wasn’t doing that, so I was taking away from them. Even though I worked so hard throughout the entire season, for it to end like that, it really messed me up throughout the summer.”

“I’m going to motivate my teammates everyday and we’re going build to get back to that position. So if we’re in that situation again, that we will change and I won’t turn the basketball over. I’ll make sure we get good shots. I’ll make sure that we’re locked into focus. It will be different next time.”

Ron Turenne/Getty Images

Atlanta’s DeMarre Carroll problem

No team was a bigger surprise than Atlanta last year. The Hawks won 60 games and advanced to the conference finals despite having no traditional superstar and being forced to play with the scandal precipitated by former GM Danny Ferry’s racially tinged comments about Luol Deng hanging over their heads. Ferry is gone, which is probably a good thing. He’s a fine GM who was the architect of Atlanta’s retooling from an overpriced, star dependent contender into a more balanced one. But Ferry’s comments, regardless of intent, forever poisoned his relationship with a large chunk of the Atlanta fan base; he had to go, and everyone in the organization knew it.

Atlanta Hawks have no ready-made options to replace DeMarre Carroll

Who Atlanta didn’t want to let go was DeMarre Carroll, the versatile small forward who was a defensive stopper for the Hawks last season. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, a Gregg Popovich disciple, likes a few things: He likes ball movement; the Hawks recorded assists on 67.6% of their made baskets, best in the league. He likes defense; Atlanta ranked in the top-five in the NBA in points allowed (97.1). And he likes consistency; the Hawks starting lineup of Carroll, Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague was 42–13 last season.

Carroll will be difficult to replace. Budenholzer will take a by-committee approach early, giving Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha (who is still recovering from a leg injury caused by NYPD officers last year) and newcomer Tim Hardaway Jr. opportunities to earn the role. But while the personnel will change, Budenholzer insists the Hawks style of play will not.

“I don’t think we will change much, if at all,” Budenholzer said. “There is a way we like to play. We give guys opportunities to make plays and make reads in certain situations. DeMarre grew in that way and the current guys we have will.”

PREVIEW: Hawks are still far ahead of the pack in Southeast division

Budenholzer said he is not expecting one player to replace Carroll, nor does he want any of his potential replacements to try and emulate him, something he has emphasized during camp. Bazemore is an elite athlete who struggled with consistency. Sefolosha is a strong defender, though at 31 he has been on the decline. Hardaway has perhaps the highest ceiling, but he will need to prove he can be a more reliable shooter and a pass-first type of player.

“Just in general, I’ve told them, ‘be yourselves, do not try to do too much.’ Sometimes when you are given opportunities to make reads, you have to make simple plays. That is what is going to be best for us. We feel fortunate we have a good group of guys that can all play significant roles. It may not be as stable as it has been the last two years. We will just kind of make some decisions and go from there.”

Greg Nelson for Sports Illustrated

Five Questions with ... LaMarcus Aldridge

Aldridge, whose decision to leave Portland and sign with San Antonio shifted the balance of power in the Western Conference, is the subject of my story in this week’s issue of Sports Illustrated, our NBA Preview issue. Recently, Aldridge sat down with SI and opened up about his decision to leave Portland, his relationship with Damian Lillard and Kobe Bryant’s impact on his free agent meeting with the Lakers.

SI.com: In 2014, you said you wanted to re-sign with Portland. When you put off thumb surgery in January, people saw that as a sign of your loyalty to Portland. What changed?

LaMarcus Aldridge: You know I think just weighing my options and just going through the process really kind of helped me see what I valued. It wasn’t easy leaving. I love Portland and I have so much history there and I knew it like the back of my hand, so the decision to leave was never easy. When I put off [thumb surgery] I definitely didn’t think I was leaving. I wanted to maximize that moment. I didn’t want to waste that. I wanted to be in the moment, I wanted to help finish the season out well and to play in the playoffs. So in that moment I was in the mind-set that I was coming back.

But I think as I went through the process more I just value being closer to home, I value seeing my kids more. I feel like, of course, Portland didn’t want me to leave, but I feel like at the end of the day it’s good to have a fresh start. You know we had first round [exits] for so many years, and then we finally got to the second round, but I think for both sides it’s actually really good. It’s better to get a fresh start and now they have no battle with who’s the face of the team. Damian [Lillard] is a very high talent so he’s going to be good for years to come. So I think in a way it actually made it easier on them too.

SI.com: Your relationship with Lillard was believed to be one of the reasons you decided to leave. How would you characterize that relationship?

LA: I thought that stuff was blown out of proportion. I feel like the organization blew it out of proportion and I felt like the media blew it out of proportion. Of course him and I could’ve talked more and been closer. You know we’re both ... the issue you have when you have two guys that are very similar as far as competitiveness and drive and kind of being brought up the same way is that they’re both the same way so you don’t have one person that really goes out of his way to make a relationship.

So we didn’t have a bad relationship at all. I enjoyed playing with him. I feel like he learned as time went along to incorporate me and how to give me shots how I like my shot, and of course everyone knows he’s a big-time player so I didn’t have any issues. We both texted and said we both could have probably done better at communicating. I thought that was one thing that we both agreed on, that we both kind of saw each other as “don’t mess with him” because we’re both so to ourselves in a way that we both didn’t want to overstep our boundaries trying to get to know each other. But then we texted and said we both probably should have done more. But I never had an issue playing with him or anything like that or with him being the face or them promoting him or anything like that. If I had an issue like that then why go to the Spurs? They don’t promote anybody.”

SI.com: Could Portland have done anything different?

LA: No, I think they did everything that they could. I thought they were trying to see what I wanted, what I needed. They were trying to keep me involved every step of the process. I thought that they definitely made me feel like they wanted me back. They were very interested in having me back, they wanted me to still be the focal point of the offense, so I don’t think there was much they could have done. I think it was just that time, where we had tried and tried and tried and I feel like San Antonio, and being home, it was just a lot of positives. Like I said being home was one of my goals and to be there and to just see my family was key.

SI.com: There was a lot of talk about the Lakers free agent meeting. It seemed like it went badly. What happened?

LA: I’m not going to get into details, but it was just a couple of meetings. The first meeting didn’t go as well as they said and then the second meeting went better. I’ll go on the record as saying Kobe was not an issue at all. He was a very positive part of the meeting. I’ve always had a very cordial relationship with Kobe. I see him all the time in Newport [Beach], and it was really messed up that [the media] put it on him when he was one of the best parts of the meeting. But like I said, the first one didn’t go as well, the second one went a little bit, but at the end of the day going back home was more valuable.

SI.com: Hypothetical questions: If Portland didn’t get ravaged by injuries last season and the team went deeper in the playoffs, would you be back?

LA: I don’t know. It’s not easy to say or you don’t know how you would exactly feel in that moment so I really can’t say. Maybe I would have, maybe not, but I think we definitely wanted to go further and we thought that team could have if we didn’t get hurt.

The Fine Fifteen

1. Cavaliers: You have to be a serious Cleveland cynic not to make the Cavs the frontrunners for the title. This team is stacked. I mean, the comeback of Anderson Varejao, a very good player, is almost an afterthought.

2. Warriors: Giving the defending champs respect here, though the top of the Western Conference is a minefield. Effectively swapping out Jason Thompson for David Lee is an upgrade defensively in a power forward-rich conference.

3. Thunder: Sam Presti did a fantastic job reloading this roster during a snake bitten ’14–15 season. OKC is two deep at every position. The biggest question: Is Billy Donovan the right guy to coach them?

GOLLIVER: Donovan is under the most pressure of new NBA coaches

4. Spurs: Don’t expect the revamped Spurs to charge out the gates like Boston in ’07–08. Incorporating LaMarcus Aldridge will take some time. But when he gets acclimated, look out.

5. Rockets: Absolutely love the Ty Lawson addition. Expect Kevin McHale to play Lawson and Patrick Beverley together in two-point guard lineups. That will take even more ball handling pressure off of James Harden and make Houston a lethal transition team.

6. Clippers: The band—plus Paul Pierce—is back together. Will there be any hangover from an ugly postseason exit last spring? Sense of urgency is high in L.A.

7. Pelicans: One scout told me he thinks Alvin Gentry is worth 5–6 wins along for New Orleans this season. Jrue Holiday’s healthy a big key for the Pels.

MAHONEY: Gentry is behind reinventing the Pelicans | Holiday Q&A

8. Raptors: In Masai (and Dwane) I trust. Off-season additions of DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo bolster a defense that stunk up the joint last year. And Kyle Lowry has put up some big numbers this preseason.

9. Grizzlies: Memphis will dominate the paint (again) and has an elite point guard in Mike Conley. Can the Grizzlies get consistency out of Jeff Green and enough shooting from everyone else?

10. Bulls: Let’s think optimistically and say Derrick Rose will be healthy next season. Next question: Can Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol play together? Preseason results have not been encouraging.

11. Hawks: Mike Budenholzer told me he loves what he is expects to get from Tiago Splitter, who will take plenty of physical pressure off of Al Horford. Can they replace DeMarre Carroll? That’s a problem, and it’s a big one.

12. Heat: The Heat have one of the best starting lineups in the NBA. But can their bench provide enough support to keep some of the starters’ banged up bodies healthy in April?

13. Bucks: If Michael Carter-Williams has a strong second season in Milwaukee, the Bucks will jump these rankings quickly. Lots of young talent for Jason Kidd to work with.

14. Wizards: The Wizards say they want to play up-tempo, shoot less midrange jump shots and be more aggressive shooting three’s. Great. Now lets see if they do it.

15. Celtics: Boston has an elite defensive backcourt and a super scorer in Isaiah Thomas coming off the bench. If Brad Stevens can nail down a consistent frontcourt rotation, Boston will improve on last season’s 40-win finish.

Quote of the Week

“It’s not been going too well. We got into a couple arguments the last couple of days. Hopefully, we continue to talk, and it will get better.”

— Rajon Rondo, via Cowbell Kingdom, on his relationship with George Karl. The comments briefly caused a social media firestorm, until Rondo clarified that he was kidding and Karl professed that his relationship with Rondo could not be better. I believe them. Still, the Kings, with some big personalities on the roster (and in the coach’s box) are a team to watch this season.

“Call [mistakes] out in the film session so everybody can see that and hear that. By them doing that, it kind of forces me to be at the top level of my game on both ends of the court. I think it brings the best out of me and if you bring the best out of me, I think it will bring the best out of everyone on the team.”

— Carmelo Anthony, who has called for Knicks coaches to hold him accountable more this season. I like the attitude from Anthony, who has to be feeling his own NBA mortality at this point. But my first thought: It’s pretty bad that the Knicks coaches were not doing that before.

Rondo among players in contract years | Can Melo carry Knicks to playoffs?

Tweet of the Week

Good for you, John Henson. Schwanke-Kasten—which made its Instagram and Twitter accounts private on Monday—and its employees should be embarrassed. So, too, should the police officers that treated Henson like a criminal. Storeowner Thomas Dixon offered a weak explanation, telling a local TV station that the store had been robbed three times by someone in a car matching Henson’s. OK. Sure. Whatever. The Whitefish Bay police disputed Hensons’s version of the events, saying the officers merely inquired about Henson’s dealer plates. I have no doubt that once the people involved realized Henson was a millionaire NBA player, it eased the tension. It’s how they treated Henson before they knew that is what is most troubling.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

Open Floor podcast: Billy Donovan

In the debut episode of SI.com's new NBA podcast Open Floor, I chat with Thunder head coach Billy Donovan about his transition to the NBA and what it's like coaching Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Later in the program, the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson discusses Derrick Rose, Fred Hoiberg and the Bulls' upcoming season.

14 on the clock

14. The Hornets are 6–0 in the preseason and getting production from players not named Al Jefferson. That has to make Steve Clifford very happy.

13. Cleveland’s 0–6. I bet everyone is panicking.

12. Noted this on Twitter, but it’s worth noting again: The exploitation of Lamar Odom by some entertainment media outlets has been despicable. Glad to hear Odom is on the road to recovery. One of the genuine good guys in the NBA who has endured so much.

11. Speaking of Odom, SI.com’s Lee Jenkins has one of the best pieces you will read about him and another in the magazine this week.

10. How disappointed Boston must be in Jared Sullinger. Sullinger openly acknowledged his need to come to camp in better shape at the end of last season. He doesn’t look it, and Brad Stevens isn’t going to give him minutes over David Lee and Amir Johnson just because he’s younger. The time for valuing development over wins in Boston is over.

9. Outtake from my conversation in Atlanta with Mike Budenholzer on how Budenholzer, who was named team president in the off-season, is taking lessons from Gregg Popovich on how to handle two jobs: “He really encouraged and embraced people having different thoughts and ideas,” Budenholzer said. “Debate or argue or disagree—out of that comes a healthy work environment. The last thing [Pop] wanted was a yes person. If you weren’t arguing or disagreeing, you probably weren’t going to last long.”

8. Interested to see how Stan Van Gundy handles his team this season. Van Gundy rode his players hard last season. Long practices. Long shootarounds. Van Gundy was determined to break some bad habits and instill good ones. Will he do it again? Or will SVG loosen the reigns a little bit?

7. I love Scott Skiles coaching a young team in Orlando.

6. Future head coaching candidates to watch: Kenny Atkinson, Adrian Griffin and Darren Erman. Honorable Mention: David Fizdale.

5. Here’s hoping Indiana’s struggles this season—and it will struggle, no matter how many small lineups it puts on the floor—doesn’t cost Frank Vogel his job. The Pacers committed to a quasi-rebuild when they moved away from the Roy Hibbert/David West combination. It’s going to take time to get back.

4. I looked for ways not to pick Portland to finish last in the West. I couldn’t find them.

3. The Matt Barnes-Derek Fisher story is still weird. What I like least about it, at least from a basketball perspective, is that Fisher missed a Knicks practice because he couldn’t get out of L.A. When you are Gregg Popovich, you can do that. When you are Derek Fisher, you cannot.

2. As Billy Donovan reiterated to me in the new Open Floor podcast, there will be no minute’s restrictions on Kevin Durant. He’s cleared and ready to go.”

1. Oh, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

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