James Harden Is a Houston Rocket: So, Now What?

I haven't used a Sopranos analogy in a long time, and frankly, since the series has been defunct for more than five years, I have no idea how much longer the Relevancy Police are going to allow me to do so, so if I may:

Remember in the first half of Season 6 of The Sopranos, when Tony got shot in the stomach by Uncle Junior and wound up in a coma? If you recall, the duties of acting boss fell on the shoulders of Silvio, the lifelong consigliere and sidekick to Tony. As Tony lay in the hospital bed, Silvio (and his money-hungry wife, Gabby) fantasized about Silvio's taking over the "big seat" full time, in the event that Tony died or was incapacitated, a scenario the two of them were practically rooting for.

You'll remember Sil and Gab self-admiringly staring into the mirror together as Silvio made one of his patented Silvio faces, this one saying, "Hell, yeah...maybe I DO deserve to be boss. Maybe that IS what I want."

Of course, over the next 30 minutes of that episode, we saw Silvio's inability to make good decisions (that is, when he was making any decisions at all), and eventually he wound up going to the emergency room with a stress-induced asthma attack.

The message was clear: Not everyone is cut out to be boss.

So as I try and caution the Rocket fans who have been so star-starved since Yao Ming's and Tracy McGrady's bodies quit on them (which only feels like it was about 20 years ago) and who want so badly for the newest Rocket, James Harden, to be that guy, I can't help but think of Silvio getting wheeled out to the ambulance probably lamenting what he wished for.

On Saturday night, the Rockets made some serious noise around the league when they completed a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder to bring Harden (and three other players) to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, a couple of first-round picks with various protections (including the Toronto future lottery pick acquired for Kyle Lowry) and a second-round pick.

The move caught many off guard, not the least of whom was Harden himself. Despite the fact that the team was very clear about their final offer on Saturday and Harden's needing to decide that day, Harden wanted more time to mull over the Thunder offer. But the Thunder wanted an answer literally within an hour, and when Harden rejected their final offer, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti pulled the trigger. Courtesy of The Oklahoman:

James Harden boarded an airplane Sunday morning, bound for Houston. He was "devastated," said someone who knows the Bearded One. Harden and his family both....

But (Thunder GM) Sam Presti told him. Presti's lips now are sealed, but sources from both parties said that the Thunder appealed one final time to Harden on Friday. Upped its offer to $53 million over four years but told Harden if he didn't take it, he would be traded to Houston.

Presti didn't use that as a warning. He used it as a plea. He desperately wanted to keep Harden, but this was the last best offer.

And the Thunder gave Harden an hour to accept.

Quite simply, Harden wanted a maximum salary deal, which for four years would have been $60 million. The Thunder did not want to give it to him. Most have speculated that it was due to the luxury tax ramifications of having another maximum salary on the books (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook being the other two). Whatever Presti's reasons, I respect his decisiveness and, frankly, respect his ability to evaluate talent.

The fact of the matter is that, relative to Durant and Westbrook, Harden is not a maximum-salary talent. The Rockets (and we will get to them in just a second) will pay Harden a maximum salary when he eventually signs his extension this week, but their valuation on and expectations for Harden are clearly different than Oklahoma City's were. The Rockets will be paying Harden to do "max dollar" type things, Daryl Morey made that abundantly clear in Monday's press conference introducing Harden to Houston.

Oftentimes, NBA teams feel "forced" to pay maximum or near maximum deals because "that's the going rate" in a quasi-open market where the laws of supply and demand are driven by a couple dozen drunken sailors. The graveyard is full of players who morph quickly from maximum deal players to financial albatrosses to contracts desirable only because they are expiring.

Well, overpaying because of market craziness has never been the Rockets' modus operandi (although the Luis Scola matching offer bled into that realm), and to his credit, Daryl Morey made no such lamentations on Monday about paying a maximum deal to James Harden. Morey used terms like "elite talent" and "perennial All-Star" in describing Harden, and when asked why he thinks Harden can be a number one option in an NBA offense, Morey went with the very nonanalytical (and perfectly acceptable, by the way) answer of "I've watched him play." Of course, I'm guessing Morey's "eyeball test" is supplemented by several thousand gigabytes of advanced metrics on Harden as well (perhaps his proficiency in the pick and roll when paired with players of Taiwanese descent), but for purposes of the press conference, Morey's answer worked.

To me, this trade boils down to two questions:

1. Is James Harden an elite-level (read: truly worth a maximum contract) talent? On Twitter, after this Harden deal went down on Saturday, I jumped into the Twitter celebration with what I thought was a little dose of reality -- that, while I clearly think Harden is an upgrade for the Rockets and that they got better as a team (slightly better, for now), he is not worth a maximum contract and he's not an elite-level player. Not surprisingly, a handful of Rocket fans reacted like I was Kobe Bryant and I had just declared prima nocta on their wives.

I will admit that I wasn't a huge fan of Harden's game when he was coming out of Arizona State, so we can start there. I just thought he lacked the explosiveness and upper, upper level athleticism to have his game translate to the NBA to the extent that he would be worthy of the number three overall pick in the draft. Obviously, I underestimated him. That said, his situation in Oklahoma City could not have been more perfect. Harden had two blossoming, All-Star caliber teammates in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and he had the perfect amount on his plate -- come off the bench, play 30 minutes or so, run the offense some, knock down shots. I mean, Harden is a fine player, but speculating that Harden goes from that role to lead dog is a huge, HUGE leap of faith.

Is it okay to think that maybe Harden was so effective in Oklahoma City because of whom he played with, that being third banana suits some people better, and that all of the advanced metrics in the world (which many Rocket diehards were quick to direct me toward when I started ruining their celebration) are drastically muted when you go from your top two teammates being players number 2 and 7 (Durant and Westbrook) in John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Ratings to your top two teammates being players number 89 and 154 (Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons)? Am I reading too much into the stories about Harden's sulking in the corner of the locker room after he only played 22 minutes in Game 1 of the NBA Finals (an Oklahoma City win, by the way)? Was that just competitiveness, or a total lack of self-awareness?

No amount of advanced statistics can measure the mental leap from sidekick to alpha dog, and to use my co-host John Granato's analogy, Harden isn't just going from being Robin to Batman -- he's going from being Alfred to Batman.

Further, regarding Harden's eliteness and future as a perennial All-Star, the Rockets' posted season win total in Las Vegas before the trade was 30.5. After the trade, it went up slightly to 33.5. In short, this is still expected to be a lottery team (and quite honestly, not even as strong a lottery team as the Scola/Martin/Lowry Rockets of the last few years). If Harden is a true mover of the proverbial needle, Vegas doesn't seem to think so.

(A quick aside on Harden as a "perennial All-Star" -- Morey proclaimed Harden would make the All-Star team this season, which is pretty damn bold. I mean, if Harden's the best player on a team on pace to win 34 games AND has never been to an All-Star game before, he's not going this season. It's not as absurd as some of the speculation that Harden could lead the NBA in scoring, which I did see some of on Twitter on Saturday, but a long shot, for now at least.)

So Harden will need another potential All-Star alongside him. No crime in that, not in this day and age of star players teaming up. But that brings us to the other question...

2. Who do the Rockets get as the other "elite level" talent to take the rest of their salary cap space in 2013? This was the other thing that Twitter was quick to point out to me on Saturday -- the Rockets still have room for one more max level deal to give to some lucky player next season. (By the way, I refer to any movement of several people against me on Twitter as just "Twitter.") Which sounds awesome until you realize that having cap space for next year's free agent class is like having a gift card to shop at a grocery store after they just had a "going out of business" sale -- the only things left on the shelves are plastic forks and SPAM.

If we can assume Dwight Howard and Chris Paul as both being "off the market," this leaves the only reasonable, semi-palatable unrestricted possibilities as Josh Smith (a versatile, two-way forward who loves his jump shot a little too much) and Paul Millsap (likely a stat geek's wet dream with his rebounding numbers). And frankly, if you're going to war with a nucleus of Lin, Harden, Asik and Smith or Milsap as your top four salaried players, you're either stuck right back in the 8 seed range, or you better hope like hell Terrence Jones or Donatas Motiejunas becomes the real deal.

Now, I include the words "reasonable possibility " in front of Smith and Milsap because Andrew Bynum will be a free agent as well, and while the Rockets would probably love to have him, it would probably take a major blow-up between Bynum and Philly management to have him look elsewhere after the season. Hey, nothing wrong with rooting for that scenario, which, considering how big a jackass Bynum can be, is certainly in play, but probably not "reasonable."

Aside from that, perhaps the Rockets look to vulture an already-under-contract "elite" player who grows dissatisfied with their situation wherever they are, a la Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams or Dwight Howard. The Rockets have been down this road before unsuccessfully, but maybe this time will be different. Names to keep an eye on include LaMarcus Aldridge in Portland (my buddy Brian Geltzeiler of hoops critic.com suggested that one) and (admitted complete long shot here) Kevin Love in Minnesota, assuming there's maybe some fire behind that smoke we saw at the Olympics when he expressed some envy over being the only non-NBA playoff participant on the Olympic team. Both are locked up through 2015.

In the end, regardless of where you stand on Harden's level of star power, the Rockets had to do this deal. There were way too many empty seats in Toyota Center at the end of last year, and while I disagree with the assessment of Harden's place in the NBA universe (he's good, not elite), the nucleus of Lin, Harden and to a lesser extent Parsons and this year's rookie class is, if nothing else, sellable to fans. Harden has the smell of "winner" on him from the Thunder's playoff success the last couple years, and the favorable impression of stardom on him from his stint riding pine on the Olympic team.

He also has several big paychecks coming his way. James Harden is about to find out what it feels like to be boss.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.

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