ATLANTA – When he arrived, he woke up a stale franchise. Then he delivered a starry performance from the jump and the response was just as immediate. Lights blinked, cameras clicked, folks noticed, all that. Only thing missing now is a term that perfectly captures the moment.
How about: Beardsanity?
“I’m on board with that,” Jeremy Lin said, laughing. “Let’s do it. Let’s start spreading it.”
Whoa. We’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. James Harden has only been in Houston since lunchtime, and there’s still plenty to prove, especially the part about whether he’s the true definition of a max-contract player. But Harden, if nothing else, brings a buzz to the Rockets. Within 24 hours of his debut, a 37-point, 12-assist bulldozing of the Pistons in the season opener, Harden was getting a poor man’s Linsanity treatment: a half-dozen interview requests prior to Friday’s game with the Hawks and an invitation to appear live on “Inside the NBA” to trade slapstick with Shaq and Sir Charles.
“He’s got to step it up, to be honest,” Lin said, wisecracking. “Got to get at least 40 and 15 a game.”
If Harden is truly a lead singer, someone with the talent and mindset to carry a team, the Rockets will look even smarter for prying him from the Thunder in a fire sale. He’ll be exactly what they need, someone who can score and sell tickets. That’s the only way the Rockets can recoup the costs: $80 million to Harden, plus their leading scorer, top rookie and a pair of future first-round picks to OKC.
Is that high? Not when you consider the NBA is a star-driven league. You can’t win a championship without at least one. The Rockets believe Harden will blow up very soon if not right away, now that he’s going from Sixth Man to Leading Man. Besides, he’s only 23, not even in his prime yet, and he made the Olympic team. When the odds are in your favor like this, and you haven’t had a star since Yao Ming, you do that deal 10 times out of 10 and write those zeros the check.
Still, Harden hears the same whispers you hear, and he is slightly amused by the perception that he’s not a max guy, that his knees could buckle from the load, especially on a team that needs work. Harden says that’s nonsense and believes he can move from riding shotgun to the driver’s seat without stepping outside the car.
“This was my role in college,” he said, before catching himself, realizing how that might sound, him comparing the NCAA to NBA. “This is a different league, but it’s something I know how to do,” he quickly added.
The basics are there; Harden is a wing player who can shoot with range. That alone makes him valuable to a team like the Rockets, who are still developing and without a lot of proven players. But Harden shouldn’t be typecast as strictly a shooter. He brings a decent off-the-dribble game, at least as long as he’s going to his left, and he’s quick and athletic. He showed in his time in Oklahoma City that he can be equally productive in transition and the half court.
So really, what’s not to like? Well, Harden is coming off an atrocious performance in the NBA Finals, where he was a reason, if not the main reason, the Thunder lost in five. But should that be such a big strike against him, and raise doubts about his ability to make the transformation from a supporting role?
“It’s going to be difficult, a lot more pressure, to be sure,” he said.
Also, in OKC, Harden had the luxury of playing next to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who commanded most of the defense’s attention. With the Rockets, and especially after his debut, defenses will press up against Harden enough to smell his breakfast, and he‘ll see double-teams for the first time in his NBA life.
“As we go along we’ll have to figure out how to get him more room so he can continue to shine, because teams will adjust,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “But it’s on James, too. What I like about him is he’s got all the counter moves. He’s a tremendously gifted young man who will only get better.”
In this sense, Harden needs to develop a rapport quickly with Lin, someone who can and will get him the ball in all the right places. They haven’t had a training camp together, let alone a week’s worth of practice, so their signals will probably get crossed a lot initially. But Lin is anxious to have the on-court relationship with Harden that he never had with Carmelo Anthony with the Knicks. There always seemed to be an uneasy undercurrent between them in New York, mostly from Anthony’s end. The two never truly clicked. If Anthony really wanted Lin, for instance, would the Knicks have refused to match the offer from the Rockets, even though the contract was financially poisonous in the third and final year?
Unlike Melo, Harden doesn’t appear to be a demanding and high-strung scorer. Besides, he’s not playing for money, and as proof of his unselfishness, he did have a dozen assists in his Rockets debut, and wasn’t exactly passing the ball to Durant and Westbrook.
Lin can envision the Rockets running several variations of the pick-and-roll, which is where he thrives, and freeing up Harden for jumpers.
“We’re going to hit some walls initially, only because everything is new,” Lin said. “I don’t think you can expect to see what we did in Detroit every game. But our chemistry will be there, it’s just a matter of time.”
For someone who left a team that reached the NBA Finals and probably had a few more in its future, Harden seems content. Eighty million will do that. The Rockets are a work in progress and Harden could lose more games this season than he did the last two in OKC. The Rockets do have money to spend next summer, however, and they’re hoping that free agents see the benefits of suiting up next to Harden.
If he’s in the All-Star Game this season, which coincidently will be played in Houston, what better advertisement could the Rockets get than that?
He says he has no problem inviting attention, defensively or otherwise: “It says I’m doing something right.”
It’s a position that Lin knows only too well from last season, a burden that “people don’t understand how it can wear on you,” he said.
If Harden keeps this up, he’ll surely invite some of what Lin saw in New York, in a different sense, of course. The Rockets expect and need him to be a star, and for the first time in his short NBA life, Harden will work alone in that regard.
Does he feel stressed by that? On the contrary, he said.
“I feel blessed.”