James Harden, playing in his Houston Rockets debut after just two days of practice, exploded for 37 points, dished 12 assists, grabbed 6 rebounds and picked 4 steals in a 105-96 win over the Pistons on Halloween night. It was an eye-popping start for the Rockets’ $80 million man.
Two things really drew my attention.
First, Harden’s elite-level ability to attack the basket. He showed tremendous quickness and zero fear in going to the cup. As the highlights video shows, he did it time after time after time. Before his debut I was a bit embarrassed in saying that Harden reminded me of a young Dwyane Wade, usually adding “a poor man’s” or “similar to” as a qualifier, but in simply his ability and willingness to penetrate, he does remind you a bit of Wade (or a Manu Ginobili).
Secondly, his passing ability. As Rudy T would say, “Kapaya!” Harden was lethal in the pick-and-roll and multiple times would thread bounce passes through traffic to a cutting teammate. 12 assists in his first outing when he barely knows his teammates — the game is in his blood.
That was the most excited I’ve been watching a Rockets game since the 2009 playoffs, and I don’t think it’s even close. Granted, the half dozen Twix bars I downed may have contributed to the energy level, but that was reminiscent of watching an early years Steve Francis, a newly acquired Tracy McGrady or a rookie Yao Ming in his 20 point breakout game against the Lakers.
The game has absolutely changed. There’s a future again in Houston.
This is not about now — the Rockets may surprise and compete for the playoffs this year in a deep Western Conference or they may not — but rather how Harden changes everything moving forward. You now have a piece, a legitimate untouchable on your roster. A 23-year old guard, capable of putting up 37 points, unselfish in his style of play, loved by his teammates and now locked in for six years, is going to be a magnet.
You need a star to get a star — that’s the reality of today’s NBA. The Rockets, miraculously, found a shortcut and now have one. They now sport a backcourt with potentially ten+ years ahead of them that is arguably the league’s most marketable right now, playing in a diverse city with no state income taxes and warm weather. Did I mention there’s a maximum contract slot soon to be available? I strongly suspect the stigma that has plagued the Rockets the past few years is ancient history and young, up-and-coming players could now eye Houston as a top NBA location for the coming years.
Credit Daryl Morey, Sam Hinkie, Gersson Rosas and the Rockets’ front office. They stuck to their guns, even when their approach got heavier criticism after amnestying Luis Scola, selling off quality players for draft picks and falling short in their pursuit of Dwight Howard.
As we talked about in the podcast yesterday, the team’s offseason consisted of signing three key acquisitions, Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, to contract amounts that their previous playoff teams were unwilling or unable to give because of their limited roles with those teams.
“$25 million to a guy for two weeks of Linsanity?”
“$25 million to a backup center?”
“$80 million to a sixth man? LOL!”
Asik was playing behind one of the league’s best defensive centers in Joakim Noah. Harden was behind two top ten players in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. With each addition, most notably Asik and Harden, the plan was an increased role and responsibility in Houston. It’s quite possible that at the end of the year, some if not all of those contracts, criticized by many at the time, will look like good values.
And in the case of Harden, I must confess — I’ve long believed that the Moreyball approach of finding underutilized value is the correct one when you have a superstar or two and you need to maximize quality around them in a league where salary management is king. The Rockets executed this very well in the original Kyle Lowry trade, where Lowry was stuck as a third string point guard on the Grizzlies, and the Luis Scola trade, where the Spurs couldn’t quite pay Luis to bring him in from overseas.
But a superstar? A 12-year old fan could spot them. It’s just a matter of wooing them, which is difficult for anyone.
Maybe I was wrong. Without a doubt, everyone in the league knew that Harden was a very good player and I wouldn’t even hint otherwise, but he was coming off the pine in OKC whereas Morey and company brought him here to take center stage and be the alpha dog. There’s a difference. Is it possible that the Rockets front office used their same approach to find underappreciated value to actually identify a true superstar?
Hey, one game against the paltry Pistons does not a superstar make, so time will tell, but the buzz right now? That’s unmistakable.
Things are changing in Houston.