Trail Blazers

James Harden could learn from Damian Lillard on team culture, leadership

Trail Blazers

Houston has a problem and it sounds like it is James Harden.

Within 72 hours, there have been two important storylines that have surfaced in the NBA.

One, Damian Lillard is a leader and one that players want to be teammates with. Against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday during preseason action, Lillard wasn’t just sitting on the bench utilizing his rest ahead of the regular season but instead was coaching up young guys Gary Trent Jr. and rookie draft pick CJ Elleby.

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Three days later, a report surfaced on Wednesday explaining the reasonings why Russell Westbrook left the Houston Rockets claiming he was “appalled” by the team culture and that a big part of it was because of Harden.

If you recall, Harden and Westbrook played together for three seasons in Oklahoma City (2009-2012) before Harden left for Houston. During that time, the Thunder made the playoffs each year and appeared in the 2012 NBA Finals but fell in five games to the Miami Heat. 

Their lone season together in Houston last year wasn’t much different. The Rockets posted a 44-28 record, but took an early exit from the playoffs after falling in five games to the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers.

For how much money and hope the Rockets poured into reuniting Harden and Westbrook, this was the ultimate failure for the organization. It also caused Houston GM Daryl Morey to step down from his duties and head coach Mike D’Antoni to not return as head coach in a span of one month.


However, it sounds like the seed of this dysfunction in Houston starts and ends with Harden. 

According to a report from ESPN’s Tim McMahon, Harden’s ‘casual culture’ in Houston and his “love of partying in certain cities determines the team’s travel schedule and off days, and his inability to be on time has caused the Rockets to act like ‘an organized AAU team,’ one former staffer said.”

Westbrook demanded a trade and now will begin a new chapter with the Washington Wizards.

Sounds sort of like what is happening within the Los Angeles Clippers organization as well with “superstars” Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Yes, this sort of thing happens with high caliber players. LeBron James runs the Lake Show but it’s how he does it that matters.

There are requests and then there are threatening requests.

It is a contrasting difference in terms of leadership to Damian Lillard.

Players want to play with Dame. The Portland Trail Blazers organization isn’t dysfunctional because its leader values culture and trust. Time and time again, Lillard has shown his loyalty to Portland and is part of the reason why the Trail Blazers have a better chance of winning compared to Houston. 

Harden’s unique ability to score the ball will get Houston (or whatever team he is on) into the playoffs, but each season will hit a ceiling and won't end in a championship.

The team culture is only as good as its leader and Rip City is in a good spot with Lillard.