Call it Superstar Envy. That would be the driving force powering outlier NBA teams like the Houston Rockets to make moves — any moves — that would land them a bonafide franchise player. That’s a player that you can build a team around. That was Pau Gasol, before David Stern played a cruel game of takeaway for basketball reasons. That was the continually vacillating Dwight Howard, before he went all Hollywood with the Lake Show. Both were centerpieces. Each competitor a certified platinum top-tier talent. Or, as Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey proclaimed at the press conference introducing newly acquired two-guard James Harden, a “foundational player”:
"James Harden is a player we can build around, and continue to improve the team around his skills. He's an elite offensive player, a complete player. He can pass, shoot, attack the basket. Even though he's a gold medalist, an Olympian and made the Finals, I still think he's an underrated player. He's absolutely someone who, when they see him step into the role of a star for the Houston Rockets, people are going to realize just how good he is."
Harden believes that he is a superstar player. More importantly, Morey believes in Harden’s belief that he’s a superstar player. He’s watched while opponents Feared the Beard. He’s looked on as the crafty lefty expertly Euro-stepped his way past defenders, executed pick and rolls, pick and pops and tomahawked his way though lanes. He watched the third-year SG drop 40 on Phoenix. He’s calculated the advanced stats and efficiency ratings and determined that the 23-year-old southpaw is the star he’d been feenin’ for since the Yao Ming Dynasty fell. So, he swung for the fences for this guy. He put the Rockets’ money where his mouthpiece is.
Now that he has luchini fallin’ from the sky, Harden has to deliver that superstar game. He has to be a game-changer. He has to relish being the top gun. He has to be a leader. No more playing second fiddle to KD and Russy. Harden has to prove he’s worth the max contract that he couldn’t finagle out of Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder. But is he The Man? Can he be the man? Will he put the kibosh on Linsanity?
“When I found out that he was coming here, I was pretty excited,” Jeremy Lin said. “I’ve seen him play since high school. He’s a great player. He can really score the ball. He’s always been efficient, easy player to play with. I think the way that he plays, the style that he plays, is very in tune with what we’re trying to do here.”
In a draft that included Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio, Stephen Curry, Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson and Blake Griffin, no one would have predicted that James Harden would go No. 3 to the Thunder. Sure, he’d just been voted Pac-10 POY and was a consensus first team All-American, but he wasn’t an elite athlete by any stretch of the imagination and had shirked the spotlight of being a team leader in high school and college. But leading up to the draft, he penned a letter to GM Sam Presti, detailing the pros of his skillset and how he’d fit in with the team’s future plans. He could accept a complimentary role, he pointed out.
As luck would have it, Presti agreed with the former McDonalds All-American and had David Stern call him to the podium on June 26, 2009 for some dap and a snapback. During his first NBA campaign, the neophyte gunner logged more than 22 minutes per game, chipping in 9.9 ppg on his way to an All-Rookie Second Team selection. During his sophomore season, he upped his production to 12.2 ppg. Last year, Harden’s points per contest jumped to 16.8 while shooting 49% from the field. His play earned him a nod as the second youngest winner of Sixth Man of the Year Award and a spot on the 2012 Olympic Basketball Team in London.
Outside of Rick Ross, Harden has the most recognizable beard in the continental U.S. The Los Angeles native even scored a hilarious commercial spot with Foot Locker. The only reserve in recent memory to get more burn from the pine was Lamar Odom-Kardashian. It was all coming together for Harden. He was young and gettin’ it. He was primed to take that next step.
But his ascent wasn’t without its growing pains. When he laid an egg in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, he moped over his lack of shots and minutes, even though his team had won the game. Harden never bounced back from that, turning in a historically bad performance on the way to watching Miami pop champagne and turn up at Club LIV.
After he turned down a $52 million dollar extension – a deal which would have kept the Thunder’s young core intact for years to come – he had his agent, Rob Pelinka, push for the maximum. He had to know, from watching Jeff Green lose that same battle, that Presti and the organization wouldn’t mortgage the team’s financial viability for the good of any player not named Kevin Durant.
Business was business, never personal. In the end, Harden believed he could volley back and forth over the course of days, despite Presti’s insistence that he make up his mind within the hour.
Presti left that bargaining table knowing that Harden’s star was on the rise, it just became painfully clear that it wouldn't be in the 405.
It was all a dream until last Saturday night. That was the night that changed everything for James Harden. After contract extension talks broke down between GM Sam Presti and his full-bearded backcourt assassin, OKC pulled the trigger on the Rockets’ offer: veteran scorer Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb and two first-round draft picks in exchange for Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook, Lazar Hayward (waived Oct. 29) and Harden.
Just like that, Harden was on a plane.
And just like that, Houstonians have put Linsanity on the backburner. It’s all about the Beard now. Jeremy Lin showed them flashes of brilliance, but Harden showed them sustained brilliance. This is why they’ve endured Morey’s chaotic roster puppeteering; why they’ve hung on while their team’s GM used equations and numbers to lessen the Rockets’ chances for playoff contention. It’s all come to this. Finally, Houston has the kind of player that will flip the whole script. Finally, Houston has the kind of player that’ll draw other big name free agents to town — you listening Josh Smith? Finally, Houston has a real face for its b-ball franchise, albeit it a bearded one.
And now, the Rockets have cashed in on months of futile courtship and plucked the star from the Sooner state, leaving the newly minted could-be-superstar to show ‘em what he’s got in Space City.
“This is a new stage, a new time for me to take on another role, a new path. I’m looking forward to it,” Harden said after the team’s last practice before their season opener against Detroit. “Obviously, my talent level is there. I just really didn’t get an opportunity to show it at all times. Here, I do. I just have to show it. I was on the Olympic team with superstar guys. I know what it looks like. I’ve been around it. I’ve built up on it. I’m one of those guys.”
Harden believes, Morey believes, Lin and the rest of his teammates believe and now, Houston believes. Question is: will he make everyone else a believer?
Questions abound, but if Harden is what the Rockets say he is — a budding superstar — then Morey has effed around and started somethin’ with his foundational acquisition and proclamation.