"Right now, I'm just focused on being here," Harden said Wednesday, a day after playing 21 minutes in a preseason win over the San Antonio Spurs. "Today was good. Yesterday felt really good being out there for the first time since the bubble. I haven't really had the opportunity to do a lot of 5-on-5 work, but for my first time being out there, it felt pretty good."
Harden, a perennial All-Star who sources have said has requested to be traded to a select list of contenders that includes the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers, was not cleared to practice until Monday because of his late arrival at training camp.
Harden traveled to Atlanta for rapper Lil Baby's birthday party and then to Las Vegas, where he socialized in clubs, during the period when NBA players were required to undergo daily coronavirus tests and participate in individual workouts at team facilities and self-quarantine other than essential activities.
"I was just training," Harden said when asked the point he was attempting to get across by making those trips instead of reporting to training camp on time.
Asked what he was training for, Harden said, "The start of the NBA season." He said he worked with "my personal trainers" on the trip.
Harden did not report to Houston until Dec. 8 -- two days after the Rockets began team practices. He missed the Rockets' first two preseason games, and he acknowledged that he is "in catch-up mode" with game conditioning and learning first-year Houston coach Stephen Silas' systems.
"I can only focus on right now, and for me, the best James Harden is making sure I'm in shape," Harden said. "Like I said, I hadn't even had an opportunity to play 5-on-5. Individual workouts, when you do individual basketball training, is great, but as every NBA player can agree, there's nothing like 5-on-5 training, the physicality, making reads and things like that. Yesterday for my first time being out there, I felt good, and that's exciting."
Harden's trade request is the elephant in the locker room that the Rockets are declining to discuss, both in the media and with the longtime face of the franchise.
"Since I've been here, nothing has been said about it," Harden said. "Everybody in the locker room and the coaching staff has been focused on ramping up and preparing for the season. That's all that matters."
That has been an intentional approach by Rockets coaches and teammates, who have collectively vowed to focus on basketball amid the potential distractions of Harden's saga.
"I don't try to ask him about that because that's his personal business," said point guard John Wall, a former All-Star who was recently traded from the Washington Wizards along with a protected future first-round pick for Russell Westbrook. "All I worry about is what we can do to make this Rockets team the best that we can be while everybody is here and move forward with that."
DeMarcus Cousins, the former All-Star center who, like Wall, is attempting to make a comeback with the Rockets after multiple serious injuries, expressed a similar sentiment.
"At the end of the day, this is a business," Cousins said. "You can only respect a guy for doing whatever he feel is best for him, his personal life and his career. So, no, honestly, I haven't [tried to convince Harden to commit to the Rockets], and I don't really feel like that's my place. That's a decision he has to make for himself.
"My job is to, while we're on the floor and while we're in practice, to be holding everybody accountable. We're going to come in and work every day and try to get better every day. I control what I can control. For the guys that's on the floor, we're going to go to war."
Harden was complimentary of Silas, a longtime NBA assistant who was most recently the Dallas Mavericks' offensive coordinator, but they had virtually no communication until this week. Their conversations have focused on basketball strategy.
"If we exactly knew kind of where his head was at, I think it would be good for everybody," Silas said. "But we're dealing with reality, which is things change on a day-to-day basis, things change on a game-to-game basis. As I said before, my job is to coach this basketball team and make sure these guys are put in the right positions. Part of that is the spirit of the group, and I think the spirit of the group, especially based on the game last night, is pretty good."
Silas has said several times that he will focus on coaching and let the front office deal with personnel decisions, such as potentially trading Harden.
Asked if he had trust in recently promoted general manager Rafael Stone, Harden offered a non-answer: "We haven't had a conversation."