HOUSTON – James Harden has a special room picked out upstairs at Vic and Anthony’s where he can relax and enjoy a meal, tearing through a double order of pan roasted chicken with mashed potatoes and creamed spinach with his family. The table is enormous, the lights dim, and the service attentive. It’s a way for Harden to decompress and reflect on what’s important as he shares calamari, roasted bacon, and crab cakes in a place run by Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta (unsurprisingly, it’s a favorite among players). Harden can let down whatever guard he still has up in a familiar environment, relishing the time he gets with people close to him.
When he’s alone at the restaurant, though, he doesn’t take that room, choosing not to tuck himself away where the acoustics allow an inside voice to reach the far end of the table. He sits at the bar, downstairs.
He wants to be seen.
Why wouldn’t he? The superstar has transformed himself — physically, emotionally, spiritually — over these past few seasons with the Rockets since the trade that brought him over from Oklahoma City in 2012. The Beard emerged as a self-sustaining entity. The clothing changed, the signature shoe arrived, and an MVP followed. Harden needed Houston just as much as Houston needed him, and the team made good on that arrangement, signing him to the then-richest extension in league history last summer shortly after trading for All-Star point guard Chris Paul.
The Rockets went for broke in seeking a counter to the Warriors’ level of dominance and came 27-straight missed three-pointers and a Paul injury away from pulling it off. This summer, the team doubled down, as Daryl Morey swung for the fences by bringing in Carmelo Anthony. Instead of the home run the team desired, the experiment ended with Houston striking out and Anthony seeking greener pastures.
Houston has tinkered more than a Swiss watchmaker in the first month of the season, clawing to a .500 record with a win over the Warriors (missing Steph Curry and distracted by inner turmoil of their own) on Thursday night in the process. The noteworthy moments these past few months, in no particular order, include:
– The Ryan Anderson trade
– Replacing key rotation guys like Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute with economy signings in Michael Carter-Williams and James Ennis
– A lengthy RFA period for breakout star Clint Capela
– A fight against the Lakers that left Chris Paul suspended for two games
– Losing defensive coach Jeff Bzdelik to retirement before announcing that Bzdelik will come back
– Paul playing through a sore right elbow
– Melo in and out of the lineup, and eventually “sick,” and then with an empty locker
– Rumors the team offered four first-rounders for Jimmy Butler
– A Harden hamstring injury that forced him to miss three games