A week ago, James Harden was channeling his inner Waldo, as fans tried to keep up with his whereabouts on social media.
Instead of getting acquainted with his new teammates and coaches in Houston, Harden took a 72-hour detour that began in Atlanta and ended in Las Vegas amid a global pandemic. On Monday, the former league MVP and three-time scoring champion made his way back to the Toyota Center for his first full practice — and still a member of the Houston Rockets.
Again, the skepticism surrounding Harden’s future with the organization overshadowed an impressive start to the new-look Rockets 2020-21 season that began in Chicago over the weekend.
They split their two-game preseason series against the Bulls as John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins looked outstanding in their unofficial Rockets debut. Yet, Harden remained uninterested and continues to push for a trade, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Unless something unprecedented happens between now and then, Harden — along with a visibly dejected P.J. Tucker — will suit up in their Rockets gear on Tuesday for a preseason match against the San Antonio Spurs. Blocking out the outside noise when speaking to his disgruntled star, first-time head coach Stephen Silas kept his focus on basketball in what appeared to be his first full conversation with Harden.
“We had a good conversation. I am a basketball coach. He is a basketball player. We talked hoops today. As far as his commitment to what we are doing basketball-wise, he was right there. He was locked-in asking good questions and bringing up good points about the offense. Coming off two games in three days, we were not able to do too much. But he will play tomorrow.” — Silas
Not addressing the elephant in the room has been Silas’ approach to keeping the focus on the Xs and Os of basketball when speaking on Harden. From a basketball standpoint, it should not take Harden long to get familiar with his new teammates despite the amount of time he missed. The Rockets’ first two preseason games against the Bulls revealed that Silas’ coaching philosophy is nearly identical to that of Mike D’Antoni’s — as Houston attempted 99 triples.
The eight-time All-Star may fit like a glove in coach Silas’ system, but the ominous cloud hanging over his existence could disrupt the chemistry the Rockets have established — which took another step forward during a team dinner Saturday night.
The one guy who has been a part of Houston’s new culture but was notably absent in Chicago is Christian Wood. Due to a minor injured elbow, Wood missed his first two chances to make his unofficial debut with the Rockets. He practiced on Monday and said he is aiming to return for Thursday’s preseason finale after consulting with doctors.
After watching Cousins excel against the Bulls, Wood should have no obstacle getting incorporated into the Rockets system — who is the prototypical big man in 2020. Silas ran a plethora of pick-and pops with Cousins and allowed his bigs to trail in transition for pull-up threes — similar to the way he used Kristaps Porzingis in Dallas as an assistant.
The results ended with Cousins connecting on 62.5 percent of his shots from behind the arc on eight attempts inside the United Center.
Wood was Houston’s prize offseason acquisition in free agency following his lone season in Detroit. The Athletic’s James L. Edward III — Pistons beat writer — believes Houston is a great fit for Wood, as Cousins compared the 6-foot-10 versatile forward to Anthony Davis since the start of camp.
“I think he will fit right in. The way that we played these last two games where our big men shot 3’s and rolled to the rim — that is what he does, and that is what he is very good at.” — Silas
But if Harden’s return to practice was suspenseful, then Eric Gordon’s participation on Monday was a sigh of relief. Gordon missed the second half of Sunday’s game in what Silas described as “tightness.”
Since taking over as head coach a month ago, Silas has not had an opportunity to build a relationship with Harden. There has been little to no communication between the two respective parties, but Silas has already developed a close-knit relationship with Gordon.
Outside of his shooting, Silas has been impressed with Gordon’s veteran leadership qualities but more so his defensive techniques.
“I never realized what a great defensive player he was. He closes out with great technique and has very good defensive instincts. And on the offensive end, obviously, he can shoot. But the way we are playing, five-out, it is going to be good for him. I’ve been very happy with what he has been doing on both ends of the floor and look for it to continue.” — Silas