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To Rule the NBA, James Harden Needed to Embrace Letting Go

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On a late-January night in Philadelphia, Houston Rockets point guard James Harden dribbles the ball toward the foul line and pauses, weighing one of the countless decisions he’ll make over the course of the game. A blink later and he’s off, driving to the basket with his left hand. But before Harden can launch a shot, the towering 76ers center Joel Embiid obscures his path. Not so long ago, Harden may have taken his chances and fired one off, the defender’s 7-in. height advantage be damned. But that was before one of the league’s most prolific shot takers discovered the joy of giving the ball away. And so with Embiid closing in, Harden spots teammate Montrezl Harrell rolling toward the hoop and zips it to him for an easy layup.

The score accounted for two of the 123 points Houston needed to pull out the close road win. Harden’s pass marked one of 13 assists, part of a record-setting performance that also included 51 points and 13 rebounds. It was the second time this season he recorded a triple double–double digits in three statistical categories–while scoring 50 points. No other NBA player has ever done that more than once in a season. Such feats are one of the main reasons that, after a dismal 2015–16 season in which the Rockets barely made the playoffs, Houston has a real shot at the title and Harden is a leading contender for league MVP. How did this happen?

There are no shortage of explanations. Dwight Howard, an eight-time All-Star, left Houston in free agency, which some players credit with improving team chemistry. And the Rockets brought in a new coach, Mike D’Antoni, who installed an up-tempo offensive system that relies on the three-point shot. It’s been a natural fit: Houston is making 14.5 threes per game, a record clip. But the most important reason for Houston’s success may be the one that seemed least likely to work.

When D’Antoni took the reins, he asked Harden to become the team’s point guard. Harden had never played the position full time in the NBA, and the move had plenty of skeptics–including Harden. “I thought he was crazy,” Harden, 27, recently told TIME over dinner at a Houston steak house. The point guard’s job is to facilitate a team’s offense, not necessarily to be the offense. And while Harden has always been a better passer than many realize–he finished sixth in the NBA in assists last season–it’s his skill as a scorer that made him famous enough to have his own line of gummy candy. “You are who you are a lot of times,” former Houston coach Kevin McHale said before the season started. “Can you change and be a facilitator first? I don’t know.”

With about two months left in the regular season, the answer seems clear. Harden leads the NBA in assists, averaging 11.3, 51% more than last year’s rate, while still scoring 29.1 points per game, good for third in the league. And his team owns a 40-17 record, third best in the NBA as of Feb. 13. Fans, players and media voted Harden to start this year’s All-Star Game on Feb. 19, the first time he’s received that honor. For all of this to happen, for Harden to become the player few thought he could be, is a story with lessons that apply far beyond the basketball court.

“This is my eighth year in the league already, and it’s going by like this,” says Harden, snapping a finger. “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.”

At 6 ft. 5 in. and 225 lb., Harden packs power, but he’s no freak physical specimen like LeBron James or Kevin Durant. Yet even as a kid in Los Angeles, Harden was certain he would be one of the best basketball players in the world. But he didn’t always train like one. “When it was time to run around the gym and do sit-ups,” says his mother Monja Willis, “he wasn’t trying to do all that.” A single parent who worked in customer service at AT&T for almost 30 years, Willis gave birth to Harden a decade after having her second child, following a series of miscarriages. “We called him lucky,” she says, “because he was lucky to be here.”

Growing up, Harden was a bit chubby and asthmatic, and launched the ball from his hip. “My shot was quite blockable,” Harden says. But he was a natural scorer who loved the game and remained convinced he would play it for a living. “He carried around a basketball as if it was his job,” says Harden’s older brother, Akili Roberson. “I was like, ‘Dude, do you know how many people play in the NBA?'” When Harden was in ninth grade, he left a note for his mother. “Could u leave me a couple of dollars?” Harden wrote. “P.S. Keep this paper. Imma be a star.”

At Artesia High School, an L.A.-area basketball powerhouse, coach Scott Pera tried to bring Harden’s fitness in line with his talent and ambition. Harden complained about the conditioning regimen to his mom–even today, he recalls it as “the worst time of my life”–and they met with Pera in the coach’s office. “She looked at him, looked at me and goes, ‘He’s the coach, listen to him,'” Pera says. That was enough to bond player and coach, and Harden thrived, earning a spot on the prestigious McDonald’s All-American team his senior year.

Harden stayed close to Pera for college, spurning top programs like North Carolina to attend Arizona State, where Pera had become an assistant coach. The season before Harden arrived on campus, in 2007, the Sun Devils finished 8-22. Harden engineered a turnaround in Tempe: Arizona State won at least 20 games in each of Harden’s two seasons, and he was named Pac-12 Player of the Year in 2009. That June, the Oklahoma City Thunder selected Harden with the third pick in the NBA draft.

In Oklahoma City, Harden joined the young stars Durant and Russell Westbrook to form the core of a budding dynasty. By his third season, in 2012, the Thunder reached the NBA Finals, where they lost to the James–led Miami Heat. The trio tempered that defeat by winning a gold medal together at that summer’s London Olympics. But the Thunder determined that the small-market team couldn’t afford three superstars. In October 2012, Harden was traded to Houston; he heard about the deal while at an Oklahoma City Cheesecake Factory with his sister and nephews. “I was almost in tears,” Harden says.

But the move gave Harden a chance to step into the spotlight. He was supposed to be a franchise player in Houston, and when the Rockets acquired Howard in 2013, expectations soared. The partnership worked briefly, with Houston making a run to the Western Conference finals in 2015. But it soon soured, and by the end of last season, which the Rockets finished 41-41, it was clear that Houston had one too many top dogs in the locker room. “It was confusing,” says Rockets guard Patrick Beverley. “I’ve got Dwight telling me I need it in the post, I got James telling me I need it on the wing.” This past summer Howard signed with the Atlanta Hawks, leaving Houston with a single leader and space under the salary cap to make key additions.

Now there was no doubt: the Rockets were Harden’s team, and they gave him a nine-figure contract extension to cement it. Harden had extra motivation to prove he was worth the investment. Although he joined James, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the only NBA players in history to average at least 29 points, seven assists and six rebounds in a single season, he wasn’t named to any of the all-NBA teams last season. “I guarantee you any other guy with those numbers would have made it,” Harden says, still smarting over the slight. Bouts of lackluster defense, a sometimes mopey on-court demeanor and the team’s disappointing season all likely contributed to the snub. He resolved to leave a different impression this season while keeping up the gaudy stat line. “I’m going to bounce back,” Harden says, “and do it again, do it again, do it again.”

Harden decided to skip the Rio Olympics to prepare for this season and help the Rockets recruit free agents. But for a player with a me-first reputation, bowing out of a chance to represent your country is not the best PR strategy. “The easiest thing to do, from James’ perspective, is to go to the Olympics, get a gold medal and get some of that shine back on your game and that perception of you,” says Tad Brown, the Rockets CEO.

Instead, Harden went to work on evolving his game. He spent much of the summer in Arizona, hunkered down with his personal trainer and his strength coach from college. “It was like I was locked way in a cage,” he says. The day after D’Antoni told Harden he’d be the point guard, Brown sent Harden a text, telling him that the only player to lead the NBA in scoring and assists was Nate “Tiny” Archibald in 1973. “But he already knew that,” says Brown. “He had just looked it up.”

Transitioning from a production role, in which you are responsible only for your own work, into a leadership position can be difficult in any career. The best salespeople, after all, don’t always make the best bosses. “It’s like you’re letting go of one trapeze and trying to find the other,” says Jack Zenger, CEO of Zenger Folkman, a leadership-development company. “Not everyone does that well.”

D’Antoni was worried about Harden’s ability to make the leap. He knew about his star’s shoot-first rap. And after a dozen years as a head coach in a league with its share of outsize egos, he was well-versed in the limits of a coach’s influence. “It’s hard for superstars to change what they’re doing,” says D’Antoni. “We’re paying them $20 to $30 million a year, and it’s like, ‘Ahhh, wait a minute, I got there because of that. This is better? Seriously?'”

D’Antoni relied partly on logic. If Harden was the team’s best player, he reasoned, it was more efficient to give him full control of the ball rather than have him waste energy wrestling to get open. But the coach says his appeal also depended on Harden’s willingness to challenge himself, rather than his bosses. Many superstars tell team brass that they need a better supporting cast in order to win. “But James was willing to say, ‘No, I need to change first, and we’ll see what happens,'” says D’Antoni. “It took guts.”

Harden morphed into a student. He watched film of Steve Nash, the former Phoenix Suns point guard who won back-to-back MVPs in 2005 and 2006 while playing in D’Antoni’s system. And he sought out Jason Biles, Houston’s director of performance rehabilitation, for a kind of crash course in leadership. Biles and Harden watch videos created by Tim Elmore, an Atlanta-based motivational speaker, exploring “habitudes”–mental habits and attitudes that boost performance.

Sitting in his office at the Toyota Center, Houston’s home arena, Biles pulls out his laptop to show me a few examples. In one, Elmore extols the importance of being a thermostat who sets the temperature of the team, rather than a thermometer. Another is about the importance of “the discipline bridge,” an idea that Elmore developed from seeing construction workers, after a tornado, build temporary bridges over flooded areas so they could reach houses that needed repairs. “If you’re wanting to get somewhere,” he says in the video, “my guarantee is that you’re going to have to cross a bridge along the way, called discipline.” Such talk may call to mind the Saturday Night Live self-help guru Stuart Smalley, but Harden credits the videos and sessions with Biles for helping him grow as a leader.

The proof, say Rockets players and staffers, lies in Harden’s stronger connection with teammates. Now when they struggle, Harden is better at lifting them up. “That’s a totally new thing this year,” says Brown, the team CEO. Trevor Ariza, a Rockets forward, appreciates the help. “I can be somewhere else during a game, and he picks up on that vibe,” says Ariza. “It’s just a simple conversation. ‘Hey, yo, we’re here with you. We need you, let’s go.’ He’s able to communicate those type of things while not ticking anyone off. It’s not easy.”

Neither is slowing him down. Harden is a master at pacing the game: he stops and starts on a dime, throwing the defense off his feet. His deceleration allows him to create space for an outside shot, while his slithery agility lets him snake into the lane and find an open look or draw a foul. The latter is a particular skill: Harden leads the NBA in attempted free throws.

His lethal combination is a blend of smarts, long-rage shooting touch and that newfound knack for flicking passes to open teammates like a Vegas blackjack dealer. “It’s like a second guy in your head, talking to you every possession,” Harden says of his transformation into a point guard. “‘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.'”

The scary part for the rest of the NBA is that he’s still adjusting to a new position. “He’s learning where to put the furniture, where to put things in his new home,” says Houston’s director of player development John Lucas, a former NBA point guard. “So we haven’t seen the best of him yet.”

If Houston’s players have warmed to their retooled star, the team’s fans are positively gaga. Harden’s stellar play may be the reason for much of the love, but don’t discount the beard. At a recent home game, a Harden look-alike mascot danced in the aisles, while fans dressed as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man sported paper beards modeled after Harden’s bushy mane.

The beard began in college, a bit of unchecked stubble that Harden thought lent an air of maturity. “It felt cool to look older,” he says. It has since become part of his persona: independent, creative, a bit eccentric. It even has its own candy. In 2016 Trolli launched Weird Beards, a line of sour gummies shaped in Harden’s likeness. And social media is filled with tributes to Harden’s signature look. “I’ll take 5% credit,” Harden says of the rise of hipster beards around the nation. “I don’t want too much. Just 5%.”

As the beard has grown, so has Harden’s celebrity. In 2015 he defected from Nike to sign a 13-year, $200 million endorsement deal with Adidas, which is betting that Harden can help dent Nike’s stronghold on the basketball market. His shoe launched in December, and the company says it’s their fastest-selling signature basketball sneaker in six years.

Less welcome, he says, was his brush with tabloid life during his relationship with Khloé Kardashian. “Everything I did was overthought,” says Harden. “It was blown out of proportion.” The couple broke up last year, and Harden calls it “a learning experience, for sure.”

It’s a good time to be at the top of the NBA heap. Thanks in large part to a rich new TV-rights deal that went into effect this season, revenues for the 2016–17 season are expected to reach a record $8 billion, a 23% jump year over year. Last year’s NBA Finals was the most-viewed championship series since 1998, when Jordan won his final title. And labor peace is at hand. In January the league and its players’ union finalized a new collective bargaining agreement ensuring no work stoppages through the 2022–23 season.

Harden has reaped the rewards: in July he signed a $118 million contract extension with the Rockets. An MVP award would go a long way toward boosting his wattage. But it will take a championship before Harden could be considered among the greats. And the Rockets have a tough road to a title. The Western Conference was already competitive before the Golden State Warriors added the rangy Durant to a team that won a record 73 regular-season games the year before. They have the league’s top record again this year, and the next best belongs to another conference foe, the San Antonio Spurs. Meanwhile, the talent-packed Los Angeles Clippers could loom as a spoiler. And should the Rockets manage to make it through that gauntlet, James and the Cleveland Cavaliers could be waiting to defend their title.

Harden knows what his squad is up against. But he doesn’t lack for confidence. When asked if he’s the best player in the world right now, he doesn’t hedge. “For sure,” he says. “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?”

Good luck stopping that.

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