With the free agents they've signed, with the free agents they've watched leave (one, in particular) and with every subtle bit of behavior, the Houston Rockets have been sending a very clear message this offseason, and on Saturday they hammered that message home, putting $118 million behind it — this is James Harden's basketball team.
Whether or not building around Harden the way other NBA teams (who don't have four All Stars) construct their rosters around a specific star player will work for the Rockets remains to be seen, but this will be the way. And if there were ever any doubt, then four years and $118 million should squash that.
That's the length and sum of Harden's new contract, which the Rockets announced at a press conference Saturday afternoon. The event was scheduled as merely an announcement and introduction of the Rockets' free agency signings — specifically, forward Ryan Anderson and guard Eric Gordon — but turned into a celebration of Harden's remaining in Houston.
First, on Anderson and Gordon — both agreed to terms with the Rockets last weekend, Anderson on a four-year $80 million deal, and Gordon on a four-year $53 million deal. Both fit exactly what you'd envision Mike D'Antoni wanting to put around Harden, specifically outside shooting and general scoring. Neither could be classified as even a good defender (willing? maybe?), but their ability to convert efficiently should inherently make it harder on other teams to get as many easy baskets as the Rockets allowed last year.
After the Anderson/Gordon portion of the festivities concluded, the Rockets unveiled their "surprise" announcement, and Harden took to the dais alongside D'Antoni, owner Les Alexander, and Daryl Morey, where they announced together that Harden signed a deal that would take his Rocket career through at least 2019 (the 2019-2020 season is a player option):
Nothing from nothing, but the announcement itself would've been way cooler if Harden's entrance music came on in the middle of the Anderson/Gordon portion and Harden came running in with a WWE-style "Money in the Bank" briefcase, screamed at Morey to ring the bell and then power-bombed Anderson through the table, signed his new contract and screamed, "WHO'S THE HIGHEST-PAID GUY NOW?!?"
Come on, can't one of you people who cobbles heads onto WWE bodies in these funny NBA videos like this one...
...get on that, and do it to, say, this one?
I digress...but at least think about doing that when you sign an extension in 2020, James. Anyway, I have a few thoughts on the Harden extension.
First, here are the particulars on Harden's new deal, which essentially overrides the two years he had remaining on the then-max extension he signed with the Rockets literally hours after coming over in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder in October 2012:
YEAR NEW DEAL OLD DEAL CHANGE
2016-17 $26,540,100 $16,784,031 +$9,756,069
2017-18 $28,530,608 $17,811,625 +$10,718,983
* 2019-2 $32,511,623
(* player option)
Now, my thoughts:
1. The pay increase in the next two seasons sends a great message to future free agents.
To be clear, the Rockets were under no obligation to do anything with the next two years of Harden's deal, two seasons in which he would've been the second-highest-paid player on the team behind Anderson. However, in a day and age where it feels like star players are more fluid than ever in their choices on where to work, the Rockets wanted to avoid any near-term questions on Harden's future and where he intends to play long-term. The extra $20.5 million over the next two years buys them Harden's undying love (I'm not sure if it was even for sale, but still) and at least an extra year, if not two, of Harden as the centerpiece of this team. More than that, it sends a message to future star players (whom, conveniently enough, the Rockets should have room to add next offseason in a flush free agent market) that this is an owner who will take care of them. From that standpoint, this only really needs to pay off in one more star for the $20.5 million to be worth it.
2. It addresses one HUGE unintended consequence of the new NBA salary cap.
While all of these average to below average NBA players were becoming paid like superstars this offseason, most experts and all of the teams went whistling past the graveyard in how the new stack rankings of salaries would play in locker rooms. Nobody was really asking "Gee, do you think Kemba Walker will be okay making $12 million while Nicolas Batum makes $24 million?" (Or perhaps a better example — "Gee, I wonder if Jabari Parker, Michael Carter-Williams and the Greek Freak are cool making not even $2 million more COMBINED than Matthew Dellavedova makes...hmm") It's a dynamic that is probably worth examining in its own post: Which teams could have ego problems on their hands in their locker room because they paid, say, Bismarck Biyombo $18 million per year for like five good games he had in the playoffs for another team. This dynamic will kill at least one team this season, mark my words. As for the Rockets, I have no idea if this was part of the reason they paid Harden an extra $20.5 million these next two seasons, but I do know I feel better having the best player making the most money on this team.
3. Harden seemed far more "presidential" in this press conference.
It was noticeable to many who were at the press conference, as well as those (like me) who watched the video, that this seemed like a different James Harden on Saturday. Perhaps it's the out-and-out snub by the writers at all-NBA voting time waking him up, or perhaps the dissipation of the seven-foot cloud of a certain center hanging over him. Whatever the reason, it was a more at-ease, ownership-taking Harden on Saturday. People close to the team say he's in tremendous shape and pretty angry (in a productive way) about how last season ended. Maybe we're just looking for reasons to believe, and he comes back in 2016-17 not-exactly-in-basketball-shape the way he did this past season. We will have to wait until October to find that out, but the signs are encouraging.
4. If you criticize Kevin Durant, by definition, you must praise James Harden.
There are plenty of us whose assessment ranged from casual criticism (me) to plain anger (Stephen A. Smith) over Durant's choosing to take the seemingly easy way out to winning a title and adding to his legacy. If you are one of those people, then almost by definition, you have to praise Harden for extending his deal on Saturday (yes, an extra $20.5 million helps). For now, he is truly trying to win a title while running his own crew. That's admirable. Also, I think it's safe to say that the Rockets have watched all this selling and contract-year ego stroking that the Thunder had to do with Durant (and will now have to do with Russell Westbrook) and that the Cavs have to do every year with LeBron, and they don't want any part of a distraction like that, wasting any of Harden's prime years by answering contract questions. This absolutely prevents that from being an issue for the next two or three years.
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Add it all up, and it seems as though Harden likes it here...
And that's a good thing.
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.