"I can't make trades. All I can do is go out there and try to perform." - James Harden
For months, the Rockets were the center of whirling NBA trade rumors. After a blockbuster deal landed them Chris Paul from the Clippers, talk began circulating that Carmelo Anthony, a close friend of Paul, wanted to join his buddy and James Harden in Houston. For weeks, sources whispered of not only Anthony's desire to leave New York, but how his heart was set on Houston. With a no-trade clause allowing him to veto any trade he didn't like, it seemed inevitable that he would join Harden and Paul in one of the most dynamic big threes in all of basketball.
But, the Knicks refused to pull the trigger and seemed content to enter training camp with a disgruntled All-Star forward on the roster. It was a summer-long game of chicken that ended last week when Anthony, not wanting the saga to drag on into the preseason, blinked. He gave permission for the Knicks to seek trades with the Cavs and the Thunder. Within hours, a deal was done that made him part of a big three, but with Russell Westrbook and Paul George in Oklahoma City instead of Houston.
Not only had the Rockets missed out, but they watched as their conference rival — they team they beat in the first round of last year's playoffs — got better in the process. As one might expect, the letdown among fans on Twitter was swift and depressive. Given the extreme buildup from NBA insiders who made Anthony to Houston sound like a done deal (one report called in "on the two yard line," though most agree that was not the case), it's not surprising.
At Toyota Center on Monday during the Rockets annual media day, however, there was no hand wringing, no sense of loss. In fact, it was quite the opposite. From Coach Mike D'Antonio and GM Daryl Morey to the players who paraded in front of reporters for the annual string of press conferences, the Rockest all sounded excited about the new season.
In fact, they should be. Up until the moment OKC acquired Anthony, the Rockets were having the best offseason of any team in the NBA. In addition to Paul, they quietly added defensive stalwarts P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute along with big man Tarik Black. They retained valuable backup center Nene and filled out the roster with athletes that could pay dividends in years to come.
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And that doesn't even take into account the returning players from Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon to center Clint Capela, solid role player Trevor Ariza to sharpshooter Ryan Anderson.
Then there's Paul. It's a bit of a disservice to him that, despite a rousing introduction nearly three months ago in the same room, he was greeted with questions of "what if...?" on his first actual day in a Rockets uniform. Not only is he one of the best playmakers in the game, he will help take pressure off of Harden, who often had to shoulder the scoring burden for the team.
He and Harden wanted to play together. They understand they are better together and both spoke of no longer needing individual accolades, preferring instead for loftier team goals. Much like last summer, Harden organized workouts with members of the squad. For more than two months, Paul, Harden and the team went through pickup games and worked on team chemistry, the same kind that led them to 55 wins with Patrick Beverley, not Paul, as their starting point guard.
There are questions that must be answered: How do they deal with the paper thin forward spots? Can they rely on the three pointer to the same degree? Will the additions be enough to beef up a mediocre defense? Can anyone, the Rockets and Thunder included, beat the Golden State Warriors? Those will all be answered as the new season progresses. But, on Monday, it was as much the shrug of indifference they gave to the lost opportunity to acquire Anthony as the praise they heaped on their new teammates that spoke volumes about where they are already as a team and where Paul and Harden, in particular, hope to be next summer.