Just over an hour before tip-off, James Harden jogs out of the visiting locker room and on to the Madison Square Garden court. Fans have slowly begun to trickle in and members of the media are lined up on the sidelines, scrambling to find the best video angles. Rockets player development coach—and Harden’s personal training guru—Irv Roland is waiting, ball in hand, when The Beard arrives. The floor clears off and it’s basically just the two of them.
And so begins the routine that precedes every James Harden masterpiece.
Harden starts close to the basket, taking floaters with both hands, then works the mid-range. As they move out to the three-point line, Roland sets token screens to replicate game action. James comes off, takes one gather-dribble and fires. He hones that patented step-back at the top of the key, launching from some 6-7 feet beyond the arc (right around the Knicks’ logo) and still hitting consistently. After 15 or so minutes and an abundance of shots, he daps up Irv and heads back through the tunnel. It’s go time.
From his seat just behind the bench, Roland watches as James unleashes the moves they’ve refined in the offseason. They focus heavily on off-the-bounce threes in their workouts; Harden connects on five of them tonight. They practice taking deep shots through contact; Harden completes multiple four-point plays. They simulate isolation situations and study how to attack particular opponents; Harden punishes Knicks’ defenders one-on-one all evening.
He finishes with a career-high 61 points (one shy of the MSG record) to go along with 15 rebounds, 4 assists and 5 steals in a 114-110 win. But it’s a light 61 points, if that’s even possible. He’s somehow made one of the best offensive performances in the history of the building look easy.
“To do it at this high a level, I legitimately think he’s the best offensive player ever,” says Roland. There’s some bias, of course, but Irv has been around the NBA for 15 years now, trained with countless superstars and knows the game far better than most.
“You can argue that there are scorers that were better,” he continues, “but someone who can score on their own and produce points for other people—nobody has ever done it at this level.”
Roland will deflect praise—crediting Harden’s work ethic and natural ability, as well as head coach Mike D’Antoni’s system—but he’s played a part in all this. It was Roland who got the call from Harden in the summer of 2016, following a surprisingly turbulent Rockets’ season. The team had stumbled to a 41-41 record despite high expectations, and James had shot merely 41 percent from the field and 31 percent from three in a first-round playoff loss to Golden State. He decided to skip the upcoming Olympics to focus on training and trusted Irv to get him right for the ensuing year—which would ultimately result in a second-place finish in MVP voting. It was followed up by an actual MVP campaign in 2018; and now we’re here, with the All-Star guard averaging a ridiculous 36.5 points, 8.0 assists and 6.8 rebounds per contest.
It all began at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron, OH, in 2008. That’s when Roland met Harden, a freshman at Arizona State University, for the first time. James had already shown flashes of being an elite scorer, but Roland, who was then with the New Orleans Hornets, will admit: He didn’t envision what has become.
I mean, how could you?
Irv played Division II ball at Southwestern Oklahoma State and landed an internship with the Celtics upon graduating. That gig led to a full-time position as a video coordinator for the Hornets, where Roland spent five seasons (2005-10) and built a close bond to several players, including now Rockets’ point guard Chris Paul.
Through the years, he would repeatedly cross paths with Harden. Irv grew up in Oklahoma City and would return home when he could, developing relationships with the Thunder trio of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Harden. After his stint with the Hornets, Roland decided to found his own training business (Blueprint Basketball) in Miami. James was a frequent visitor.
The two stayed in touch when Roland took a player development job with the Suns, especially since James had a connection to Arizona from his college days. Phoenix cleared a bulk of their staff, including Irv, when coach Jeff Hornacek got fired in 2016. Harden called the very next day.
Everything since then has been a whirlwind. Being James’ primary trainer is a major commitment; not to mention Irv’s additional responsibilities for the Rockets (the team hired him shortly after).
“My summer—I don’t think most grown adults would sign up for,” Roland says, joking that he can’t even schedule a dentist appointment.
He’s gone with Harden to Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, Beijing, the Bahamas and more. At each location, Roland is tasked with finding a place for them to hoop. During their trip to Spain, they ended up in the same gym where the Dream Team won the 1992 gold medal.
Some of Harden’s best workouts occur when Roland and Paul Fabritz, another trainer who focuses more on strength and conditioning, collaborate (an approach Irv got from LeBron James awhile back). The two will put James through an intensive 45-minute circuit. He’ll activate core with Fabritz, then immediately switch to ball handling with Roland, then do some band exercises with Fabritz, then sharpen combo moves with Roland. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth, until he’s gassed.
Both Roland and Fabritz attest that serious weight lifting with James isn’t necessary. His natural strength is absurd, particularly for someone at his position.
“If he really lifted heavy, heavy, he’d be Julius Peppers or something like that,” Irv says.
Most of the emphasis is on endurance and skill work. Harden carries a huge load for the Rockets, ranking first in the League in minutes per game and first in usage rate by a wide margin. It’s on Irv and Paul to ensure he doesn’t tire out in fourth quarters or at the end of a demanding season.
When it comes to basketball development, much of what you’re seeing now is what Roland and Harden address during their sessions. There’s hasn’t been a whole lot added necessarily—it’s mostly about making sure James is ready for whatever gets thrown at him in-game. They imitate as many screen-and-rolls and isos as possible, with Roland harassing Harden to make things difficult. James plays an excess of pick-up to better his decision making and ability to process information quickly. As Irv maintains, Harden has “seen every situation,” so nothing rattles him.
“You watch some of the best trainers—they can have a thousand drills and stuff and it’s great to keep you sharp,” Roland says. “But if you really want to take your game to another level, you have to play a lot of pick-up.”
James also takes care to analyze specific matchups. Going into games, he knows exactly how the opposing team tends to defend. He takes advantage of over-aggressive guys by drawing all those crafty fouls, whether it be driving to the rim or shooting from the perimeter. The less-aggressive ones pay for giving him too much space. It’s just a matter of Harden being prepared for each scenario, and that’s where Roland provides assistance.
The most underrated aspect of Harden’s game? The footwork, according to Irv.
“His ability to start and stop is unlike anybody’s in the League. If you watch his step-back in slow motion, it looks like a Chris Brown dance move or something like that. Most people can’t move their feet like that.”
Harden is currently in the midst of one of the greatest offensive runs of all time, comfortably sitting at first in the NBA in points per game and fifth in assists. He’s dropped 30 or more in 28 consecutive outings (the third longest streak ever). There’s a major level of dedication, from both him and Irv, that’s gone into that.
“James is one of the best passers and playmakers and one of the best scorers in the game,” Roland stresses. “So [what guard] would you rather have?”
There was one time, Roland recalls, when Harden asked him straight up.
Do you think I can be a top 5 player at my position?
It was 2010, just after James’ second season in the NBA, and the two were cruising to a workout in OKC.
By then, Irv believed he could. And nine years later, the mere question seems foolish.
What Irv couldn’t possibly have envisioned, however, was the role he’d play in answering it.
Alex Squadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.
Photos by Joseph Sherman and via Getty.