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Q&A: James Harden Tells TIME He’s The World’s Best NBA Player

17 minute read

The February 27-March 6 issue of TIME includes a feature on James Harden, the Houston Rockets superstar who is third in the NBA in scoring and, to the surprise of many observers, leading the league in assists. Before this season, new Houston coach Mike D’Antoni made Harden the team’s point guard, a switch that was met with plenty of skepticism. But harden has embraced the job, playing like an MVP and leading Houston into the Feb. 19 All-Star game, in which he’s starting, with the NBA’s fourth-best record.

In the interview excerpts below, which have been edited and condensed for clarity, Harden talks to TIME about his reputation in the league, the problem with Golden State and other super teams, dating a Kardashian and what he’s learned from changing positions. Read the full story here.

Are you the best player in the world right now?

For sure. I feel like I’m solid in everything: IQ, studying the game, I can score the basketball, make my teammates better. There are not a lot of guys that have all those characteristics in one. They might be way more athletic, can shoot the ball way better. But everything solid in one human body?

You can ask all those top guys who the best player is, of course they are going to say themselves. Because as a basketball player you’re confident in your craft. It’s not taking shots at anybody. It’s a confidence.

When Mike D’Antoni told you before the season he was moving you to point guard, what was your reaction?

I thought he was crazy. Point guard? I can make plays obviously. I’m very unselfish. But point guard, that’s a lot of responsibility. I’ve never played the position before.

That first day of training camp, I remember having possession of the ball, and I’m like, ‘what I am I supposed to do here?’

Were you at all nervous about the switch?

I don’t really get nervous. I feel like it’s another opportunity for me to learn something new.

How do you rewire your thinking, moving from shooting guard to point guard?

I’m still trying to figure it out. Most point guards, their job is to facilitate and get guys involved. Me, scoring is the first nature. I’ve got to figure out when it’s time to pass, when it’s time to be more aggressive.

It’s like a second guy in your head, talking to you every possession. ‘Here you go, make the right pass, here you go. O.K., he’s open, hit him. O.K., now you’re open, shoot the ball now.’ But it makes the game fun, when you have someone on your shoulders talking to you.

Does the second guy have a beard as well?

No, he’s shaved. Clean cut.

What’s been the biggest challenge with the move?

Overthinking it. I’m still going through road bumps to figure out how to limit my turnovers. [Harden leads the NBA with 5.8 turnovers per game]. So of course in the beginning, turnovers are going to be high. The coach told me, honestly, I don’t care how many times you turn the ball over. You have the ball in your hands 90 something percent of the game. So you’re going to turn the basketball over more than most people. But as a team, if we have only 13 turnovers a game, but you have 7 or 8 of them, that’s a good game. [Houston averages 15.4 turnovers per game, tied for fourth-most in the NBA]. He put it in my head. After he told me that, I just go out there and play.

What’s the most fun aspect of distributing the basketball?

Seeing Montrezl Harrell get 30 points. [Harrell has scored 29 and 28 points this season]. Just him scoring, him getting an opportunity, him happy after the game. He’s just excited, he’s talking, smiling. It’s like a life changing experience for him. He’s in the NBA but he never knew what it felt like to get 30 points in a game. I can usually take that for granted. But for him, to get that experience, I just sat back and watched him. That right there was like, ‘OK, the more I can do that for my other teammate, the better.’ One game I want Ryan [Anderson] to hit 12 threes in one game, or Eric [Gordon] to hit 12 threes, or Trevor [Ariza]. Patrick [Beverley] was two rebounds from having his first triple double. I want them to experience that. Because that right there is something they haven’t consistently experienced in their life.

What has surprised you most about D’Antoni?

How open he was. Right away, he was calling me, he’s texting me, he’s reaching out. That right there made me even love him more. Because he’s more motivated than I am in a sense. He wants to get this team turned around. He wants to win. These last few years, he was in some messed up situations as well. He has something to prove to everybody as well.

After reaching the Western Conference finals in 2015, you guys got off to a dismal start last season. Coach Kevin McHale was fired after 11 games. What went wrong last year?

From the coaching change to inexperience, to guys not on the same page, to guys having different agendas. Just a bad team. You can see 15 plus teams in the league like that. Just a combination of bad things. We were one of those teams.

There was the perception, at least, that you and Dwight Howard — who left after last season for Atlanta — did not get along.

That wasn’t true at all. We got along. You know, it didn’t fit. It didn’t work. In life, things just don’t work out. And then you know, so what, what’s next?

What did you learn from last year’s bad experience? Any mistakes to avoid?

I’m more locked in. You look at those bad clips of me getting beat by back door cuts, and defensive lapses – that’s not happening this year. That is me more focused, because of what’s surrounding me. You’ve got positive people that encourage you, that are all about the same things. I’m playing better, everybody’s playing better. That energy we had last year, it was a disaster. I’m happy that it happened. Because here I am now. I think we all have to go through bad times to prevail and be great.

I’m being a better leader, getting outside of my box, making sure that I interact with my younger guys, Montrezl Harrell, Clint Capela, making sure I bring those guys along with me. I can be the superstar guy and be on my own. But that’s lonely.

Why didn’t you play in the Olympics this summer?

It was tough. Obviously every kid, every basketball player’s dream is to play in the Olympics, and have an opportunity to win a gold medal. I just knew how important this season was for me and my legacy and my career. That’s one of the reasons I got all of the guys together in Vegas to wok out. Also in Miami. That China trip in the preseason helped us out. Just all of that was a buildup. It was much needed.

Why did you feel such an urgency about this year?

This is my eighth year in the league already, and it’s going by like this [Harden snaps his finger]. The more years I waste, when I’m not contending for a title like I need to be, then it’s just going down the drain. I had to look in the mirror at myself and say, ‘This is what you’re doing, and this is what you have to be better at, in order to be one of the best basketball players in the world. You have to change.’ I’ve changed.

You’ve been called a counterintuitive player. Why do you think that fits?

I’m not the fastest guy, from end to end on the floor, or the most athletic. I don’t touch the top of the backboard. But I can get to my spots, get to where I need to be. That’s all that matters.

I’m at my own pace. You’re not going to make me play faster than I want to play. Most guys speed up. I need to get to point A, I’m going to get to point A when I want to get point A. When I need to change direction to get to point B, it’s when I need to go to point B. So it’s a different mentality you have to have. It’s thinking a step or two steps ahead of the defender.

Growing up in Los Angeles, did you think honestly you’d be an NBA player?

You have a dream, you have a goal that you want to do something, you’re going to find a way to do it. At that time, I didn’t know how it was going to happen. But I knew it was going to happen.

I was chubby. Had asthma. Wasn’t that tall. Scott Pera [Harden’s coach at Artesia High School in the LA area] had me on the track, had me just working. It was probably the worst time of my life. I was lazy. He had me running miles. I needed my inhaler, I’m about to pass out. It wasn’t good. But I got better at it. He saw it in me.

I never had anything given to me. Even as a McDonald’s All-American, you had the Blake Giffins, you had the Derek Roses, the Michel Beasleys, the O.J. Mayos, all those guys were in my class. I was a McDonald’s All-American. But I was at the bottom still.

How do you react to being underestimated like that?

I still get motivated every single day. Like after last year, averaging whatever crazy numbers those were [29.0 points, 7.1 assists, 6.5 rebounds, becoming only the fourth NBA player in history to average at least 29 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds in a single season; Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James are the others], and not making first, second or third team all–NBA. I guarantee you any other guy with those numbers would have made it.

So you think you’re still underestimated?

For sure. And I’m not going to dig too deep about why I was left off it. I’m going to bounce back and do it again, do it again, do it again.

Why are you still underestimated?

Maybe I need another superstar player on my team, because all these other guys, who have two or three superstars on their team, get all the attention. But I’m happy. I have good guys around me, good teammates around me, who love working hard and love to win games.

What was your reaction this summer when you heard that your former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate, Kevin Durant, signed with Golden State?

Shocked. He had come to Arizona to hang out with me for a few days. We were just hanging out, we’re good friends, not even talking about basketball. Taking about life. So after that happened, it kind of shocked me. But I’m not the type to judge.

Are so-called “super-teams” like Golden State, which added Durant to a team that won a record 73 regular season games last season, good for the NBA?

Honestly, no. Because you’ve got superstars, or so-called superstars, on three, four teams, and then the other teams, they’re talented obviously, but their legit chance of wining a championship is slim. But you can’t judge guys or get mad at guys if they want to join a really, really good team. For me, I’m happy. I’m in a great situation.

In 2015, you carried your team to the Western Conference Finals. But Stephen Curry of Golden State, who won the title that year, won MVP. Do you think you should have won it?

For sure.

Was it a strong consolation that your fellow players voted you MVP for the players association awards?

Real strong. Because these are the guys I’m competing against every single night. These are guys that are guarding you. Dwight was out half of the season. I had Joey Dorsey and Tarik Black as my centers, and we finished second in the West.

You lead the NBA in most free-throws attempted — and made — per game. Was there a moment you realized you had a knack for drawing fouls?

It was Oklahoma, maybe the end of my second year. They taught you to chin the rim: going to the rim, but the ball up, chin it, so you can finish. I did the opposite. I kept the ball down. Because you have to really good hands to strip the ball. And I have really strong hands. If you reach and you get my arm, that’s a foul 90 percent of the time. So I just used to it my advantage. Now I see everybody is doing it. I see Demar DeRozan doing it, Kawhi Leonard. I’m not saying I started it. But I think I definitely brought it back to everyone’s attention.

Do you think this hurts your perception in some sense, because people think the refs give you too many calls?

Yeah, for sure they think the referees are helping me out. But that’s not being helped out. That’s the same contact as when you’re going to the basket and you get bumped in the air. A foul is a foul no matter how it’s committed. I’m just using my brain and my IQ and finding different ways to be crafty and get to the basket and score the basketball.

It’s not like I’m going to the basket looking for arms, and looking for foul calls. I’m just going to the basket, looking to finish, and if you reach, it’s a foul. That’s the perception most people have — he goes to the basket looking for fouls. No. I go to the basket with my arms out, and if you foul me, then you foul me. It’s your fault. [Laughs]

You were raised by a single mother in Los Angeles. In his book, former NBA coach George Karl suggested that players without fathers in their lives were prone to negative behaviors. Back in December Kenyon Martin, one of the players singled out, had a strong response. What did you think of all that?

George Karl can’t come at people’s family like that. Because each individual feels different about their situation and they react differently. My dad was in and out of my life, in and out of jail. I was fortunate enough to have a strong mom. Then I got to high school, coach Pera helped me with that. So I didn’t go off the deep end. But some guys do.

That’s not your place. You can criticize and have an opinion about coaching them. But personal lives, father figures and all that stuff, it’s best that you just stay out of it.

Before the 2012-2013 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder broke up a potential dynasty featuring you, Durant, and Russell Westbrook by trading you to Houston. What was your reaction when you learned about the trade?

I was almost in tears. Me and Russell knew each other from when we played at the Boys and Girls Club together as kids. Me and Kevin hung out like every day. We were young, we hung out, we were really, really good friends. We got better every year. My third year we made it to the Finals and lost to Miami. After that summer we all go to the Olympics together. Win a gold medal. After that, I’m like, ‘this is our year.’ Every year we lost to the team that won the championship.

Looking back on that I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It allowed me to grow. I sacrificed coming off the bench with that team. I don’t think I would have been able to reach my full potential if I was still coming off the bench.

You dated Khloé Kardashian, and that relationship introduced you to tabloid fame. What was that like?

I didn’t like it. Everything I did was overthought. It was blown out of proportion. For example, I signed my Adidas deal in August [of 2015], and wasn’t able wear Adidas because I was with Nike until like October 1. So I still had to wear Nike. But every time I went out and I had Nikes on: ‘Oh my God, James Harden is wearing Nike, he just signed a deal with Adidas.’ I can’t wear Adidas until October 1. Leave me alone. It was just too much. There was just a lot of nonsense, just saying my name for no reason. It was a learning experience, for sure. We all go through those.

You’ve had to deal with a fair amount of change in your career – going from Oklahoma City to Houston, the partnership with Dwight, this move to point guard. Do you have any advice for people dealing with new challenges and responsibilities in a work environment, or anywhere else?

Something bad things happen. Do you bounce back now? Or do you just stay down there and allow it to take you down? You make a mistake, ok, don’t compound one mistake with two mistakes. Having a bad day? OK, tomorrow is going to be a better day. Like, we all have bad days in life, no matter what job you’re in. Don’t let it compound. The next day is going to be better. Always have a positive mindset. Just keep going, just keep going, just keep going.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com