From shedding Dwight Howard last summer to adding Chris Paul this summer, virtually every significant move the Houston Rockets have made over the past year has either involved James Harden or had his fingerprints on it somewhere. The Rockets are Harden's team, and if you need any further proof of that, it was delivered in a Brinks truck over the weekend, with Harden signing the richest contract extension in NBA history — four years for an estimated total of $170 million.
If it feels like we've been here recently, it's because we have. Just last summer the Rockets augmented Harden's contract to add tens of millions of dollars and, at the time, at least three more seasons. Harden still has two years remaining on that extension with a total dollar value of $49 million. This four-year extension is on top of those two seasons, thus meaning Harden will not enter free agency again until after the 2022-23 season, at the earliest.
Owner Les Alexander, who has been about as public in his love for Harden as he's been for any one player in the franchise's history, was thrilled to cut the check. Courtesy of a press release from the team:
"It's my pleasure to announce we've reached agreement with James Harden on a long term contract extension. Since he arrived in Houston, James has exhibited the incredible work ethic, desire to win, and passion to be the best that has made him one of the most unique and talented superstars in the history of the game," said Alexander. "Additionally, the commitment he has shown to our organization, the City of Houston, and Rockets fans all over the world makes him a perfect leader in our pursuit of another championship. I'm very happy for James, his mother Monja, and their family on this exciting day."
And here's a statement from Harden via the team:
"Houston is home for me," said Harden. "Mr. Alexander has shown he is fully committed to winning and my teammates and I are going to keep putting in the work to get better and compete for the title."
Since arriving in Houston in October 2012, Harden has been one of the best players in all of basketball, having made all-NBA first team three of the past four seasons, and having finished runner-up in MVP voting in 2014-15 and 2016-17. This past season, as the catalyst in head coach Mike D'Antoni's system, Harden averaged career highs in points (29.1), rebounds (8.1) and assists (11.2, 1st in the league). He helped the Rockets to a 55-27 regular season record, third best in the NBA.
Beyond the numbers, we have a few things to unpack here:
1. Why now for the contract extension?
The practical answer is "Why not?" The fizzle at the end of last year's postseason notwithstanding, Harden is unequivocally one of the five to ten best basketball players in the world, and now he's on the team for six more seasons. Administratively, there are actual reasons it was offered now, with a specific rule in the new CBA allowing Harden and Russell Westbrook to be offered the new "super max" extension this summer, despite signing extensions last summer. Harden will become eligible for a deal that starts in 2019-20 at 35 percent of the Rockets' salary cap, around $37.8 million, and will increase by $3 million each season through 2022-23. Harden is the first player in NBA history to agree to a salary as high as $46.8 million in any upcoming season.
2. What message does this contract extension send?
It is further validation that this is James Harden's team, now and until he can no longer shoulder the load of being an All-Star-level foundation piece. More important, it sends the message to free agents that a) there will be at least the gateway for a "super team" in place for several years, and b) Alexander is willing to spend whatever it takes to win a championship. That latter point becomes crucial when...
3. Hey, isn't Chris Paul supposed to get paid sometime down the road?
Yes! After the upcoming season, in fact! Paul has one year at almost $25 million left on his deal, is eligible for a four-year, $150 million extension in January, or a five-year extension of more than $200 million after the season is over. If Paul chose to sign an extension here (and the Rockets chose to offer the full max), then the final season, 2022-23, would pay around $47 million, meaning the Rockets could be paying two players a total of $94 million in 2022-23 if they extend Paul. No big deal! For what it's worth, Paul doesn't seem too concerned about it right now...
CONGRATS!!!! To hell with the ball, lemme hold some pic.twitter.com/i4M1iVzCID— Chris Paul (@CP3) July 8, 2017
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4. How does this affect the Carmelo Anthony chase?
According to ESPN.com, this will only amp up the chase for Anthony, who the Rockets have recruited before, following the 2013-14 season, and who they see as the third All-Star in a "super-team." Anthony has reportedly said he would waive his no-trade clause to come to Houston to play with Paul and Harden.
To bring this all back around to "Why extend Harden for so much money?" Paul doesn't agree to come here without Harden's sales pitch, and Anthony doesn't position himself to come here without Paul. Star power begets star power, and the Rockets now know they'll have it until 2022-23.
Beats the hell out of the Kevin Martin era, doesn't it?
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.