As James Harden stepped to the line at Toyota Center late last night in the 4th, the first MVP chants in eight years from the home crowd poured down upon him. He calmly sank points 45 and 46, sealing the victory for the Rockets. Afterward, head coach Kevin McHale described Harden as flawless offensively and “unguardable off the catch.” From anyone’s vantage point, that’s pretty spot-on analysis.
The most interesting part there came in the form of McHale’s comment that Harden was at his best “off the catch.” Earlier in the year, I had asserted that because, unlike Jeremy Lin, Harden could actually be effective “off the catch” (ie: not needing a live dribble), the team was as its best when Lin was playing the point guard role (ie: facilitating) and dishing to Harden. Ironically though, despite McHale’s comments, Harden’s damage last night came off the dribble, with Lin effectively playing the ’2′.
On that note, in my opinion, the most encouraging development from last night’s win, even moreso than Harden’s 46 points, was the fact that Jeremy Lin scored 28 points in the same game. On top of that, it was the manner in which Lin did his damage which bode best for the duo’s future coexistence. When he wasn’t attacking the hoop in transition, Lin was spotting up for 3′s off Harden kickouts – he hit numerous big ones, down the stretch. As we’ve noted, for Lin to be able to coexist with Harden, he simply must develop his spot up shooting to a level of proficiency. Last night demonstrated how dangerous this team can be if the point guard is knocking down those open shots.
How good is Harden? Prior to the deadline, I stated that he was no worse than the seventh best player in the league at this point. Right now, I might even move him higher. Lebron James, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul are the three guys who are unarguably superior. After that? With Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose hobbled, who is definitively better than The Beard? It’s not just that Harden is tearing up the league – it’s that he’s winning and with no fellow star by his side. I don’t think even Daryl Morey himself thought Harden would be this good, this fast.
[The lasting image in my mind from this recent Harden stretch is the image of the stepback '3', first over Lebron James and then last night, over Kevin Durant. The performances, in a way, symbolized redemption for Harden, as, while the Rockets lost to Miami, he showed he can be effective against the Heat, and then last night, that he can conquer his old foes.]
The more bizarre news of yesterday was that the win came on a night when the team had traded away four rotation regulars and its entire power forward depth chart. When I arrived at Toyota Center, while heading towards the lockerroom, I was informed by some colleagues that Marcus Morris had just been traded. No one knew where but just minutes before, in the same spot I was standing, Kevin McHale had stated that the backup power forward would be inactive.
We speculated on the possibilities in the workroom and consensus conclusion was that at best, the team had used Morris to fetch a draft pick. It wasn’t until the team hit the floor that news had broke that starter Patrick Patterson had also been dealt and that in return, the team had reeled in this year’s #5 overall pick, Thomas Robinson, from the Kings. My jaw dropped.
I don’t know much about Robinson, but the fact that the Kings would give up on such a high lottery choice so quickly left me speechless. Even more surprising–though I’m not sure why I still get surprised–was that the cost for Morey was just two former #14′s.
I’ve spoken highly of both Morris and Patterson in the past. But they were what they were – limited players who had reached their ceilings. Robinson may end up a bust, but he has potential far greater than either of the two men shipped out, and he’s on a rookie deal for the next few years. In fact, the trade will end up clearing more cap space for the team this summer. (For a full analysis of the deal, see Michael Pina’s piece from this morning.) This is the type of high-upside move for which Daryl Morey has become famous.
Finally, multiple sources are reporting now that the Rockets are engaged in serious talks with the Atlanta Hawks for forward Josh Smith. Some speculation is that the recently acquired Robinson would be used in the deal. I wrote on Monday that the team should pursue Smith and then allow him to walk in the summer. It’s unclear if Houston would have long-term interest in re-upping the Hawks forward, but for now, it seems they have enough to at least entice Atlanta in talks. Stay tuned.