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Harden likes how Silas has handled new coaching job

Mark Medina
USA TODAY
Rockets star James Harden and coach Stephen Silas.

If James Harden had his wish, the Houston Rockets would have traded him already. In the meantime, though, Harden sounds content with playing for new Rockets head coach Stephen Silas.

"He did a great job," Harden said. "Very confident, knew what he was drawing up and knew where to put his guys at."

Harden’s words resonate for reasons beyond his star talent. As USA TODAY Sports reported nearly three weeks ago, Harden’s trade demand partly stemmed from the Rockets hiring Silas in the first place.

"It means a lot when any player says that they like what you do, especially as a new head coach," Silas said. "A lot of the things I’m doing are things I believe in and have seen. But until you do that, to get feedback from him and the other guys have been gratifying. I’m happy about that."

It would be understandable if Silas did not feel happy with his current circumstances. He inherited challenges far more unique than the usual ones assigned to a first-year head coach. After losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games in the second round of last season's playoffs, the Rockets have experienced wholesale changes.

Mike D’Antoni declined to return as coach after failing to reach an extension agreement the previous summer. Daryl Morey left as the general manager after assembling a roster that made two appearances in the Western Conference finals in the previous five years. First-time general manager Rafael Stone then accommodated Russell Westbrook’s trade request by dealing him to the Washington Wizards.

After failing to report to training camp on time, Harden then drew a league-imposed $50,000 fine for attending an indoor party. The NBA subsequently postponed the Rockets’ season opener against Oklahoma City last week because of various circumstances beyond Harden violating the safety protocols. Three players had either positive or inconclusive coronavirus tests, leading to four other players being placed in quarantine after contact tracing. That left the Rockets without the required eight available players needed for a game.

The Rockets have since had nine available players following Harden’s return. But Houston has lost its first two games amid ongoing absences to John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Gordon, Chris Clemons, Mason Jones, Kenyon Martin. Jr and Ben McLemore.

"There has been a lot. But I really try to focus on what I can control," Silas said. "That’s the guys who are in the locker room. That’s the practice plans. That’s the preparation. That’s continuing to preach the adaptability of this season and how important it’s going to be. ... The other stuff going on around, I really can’t control. I wouldn’t say I don’t worry about it or think about it. But it’s something that is an aside."

Even if Harden had suggested other potential coaching candidates, he has since warmed to Silas’ approach. So have Harden’s teammates.

"He had a good spirit about himself and swagger you look for in a head coach," P.J. Tucker said. "He was still cool and calm as he always is. He got his point across with what he wanted us to do and what he wanted us to get done. He’s a players’ coach."

That description should not be surprising.

Silas has spent a significant part of his life in the NBA. He is the son of former longtime NBA coach Paul Silas. Stephen Silas has had various NBA assistant coaching stints in Charlotte (2000-2002), New Orleans (2002-03), Cleveland (2003-05), Golden State (2006-2010), Charlotte again (2010-18) and Dallas (2018-2020). He also has assembled a coaching staff with extensive experience, including John Lucas, Jeff Hornacek, Will Weaver, Rick Higgins and DeSagana Diop. Silas became the Rockets head coach after playing a key role in the Mavericks finishing last season with the highest offensive rating in NBA history.

"It’s obviously good to hear good stuff from your players about the way that you do things," Silas said. "I try to be even keel. Whether you’re coming to my practice and we are on a two-game winning streak or losing streak, I try to be the same."

Consider his reaction to various adversities.

Silas did not fret about Harden’s trade request or try to talk to Harden directly about his issues with the organization. Instead, Silas has talked basketball with Harden and added the two have collaborated.

"He has been committed since he’s been here," Silas said of Harden. "He’s been great in practice, good to talk to and listening, asking good questions, pulling me to the side and telling me things he sees."

Silas did not have an issue with published reports indicating that Harden had heated moments in practice, including throwing balls at teammates. Instead, Silas recalled the countless times he has witnessed such moments during his various coaching stints.

"I want competitors on this team," Silas said. "So for guys to be competitive in whatever that way is, as long as that’s not going overboard, I love it."

Silas has not had a full roster for practice since Dec. 19. Yet, he has resisted the urge to overly compensate. Silas has talked to his quarantined players more about their well-being than about his playbook. After playing most of his roster over 40 minutes in an overtime loss to Portland on Saturday, Silas prioritized giving his players rest over more instruction. He held a light morning shootaround on Monday in Denver to go over concepts. Once the Rockets are expected to have a full roster available to practice on Wednesday, Silas will teach things more in depth.

"Once we get everybody back later this week, I’ll feel better about our ability to get everything in," Silas said. "It’s not my nature. It is my nature to be patient. But as a head coach, it’s not anybody’s head coach’s nature to be completely patient, especially when you’re trying to get your stuff in."

Silas has not exactly excused his team for its shortcomings. He dismissed the high altitude in Denver to explain the Rockets’ 124-111 loss to the Nuggets on Monday. He downplayed the team’s diminished roster. Not when he has Harden, who has averaged 39 points in two games. Not when he has Christian Wood emerging as a legitimate center threat.

"It’s a really good question. It’s a hard one," Silas said. "We expect to play well. We expect to win. We don’t expect to go out and have a performance like we did (against Denver). So we just have to learn from it, grow from it and get better from it."

Will that be enough to ensure the Rockets remain a playoff team? That partly hinges on Harden’s future. In the meantime, however, Silas has impressed Harden enough to keep him engaged.

"It’s really good to hear he thinks the structure and communication are good," Silas said of Harden. "I just have to keep it up."

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