Just like that, everything’s different. Daryl Morey had stayed prepared, but last weekend’s stunning trade for James Harden proved the importance of luck in the NBA. You can make smart moves, but without some bit of luck, you’re going nowhere.
The week before had seen, not just the discussion following the trade, but the emphatic justification of the contract: after signing an extension worth $80million, Harden went on to average 41 points per game in his first two outings with the Rockets. Tickers blared in alerting that Harden’s 82 points to start the season were a total matched only by Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain, basketball’s two most unrealistic figures. (When those two guys are the list, it’s basically like saying “you’re imagining the whole thing….it really didn’t even happen.”)
For the first time dating back to the early days of the Yao-McGrady era, Harden and Houston remained at the forefront of attention. National outlets featured the shocking two-game debut, from the headlines to highlights; more than amazed, most were dumbfounded.
I arrived early to Toyota Center last night, hoping to soak everything in. (Like a good majority of Houstonians, I still had not actually watched a Rockets game this season, the greatest and most tragic irony of this entire ordeal. Unbeknownst to most outside of Houston, with their team finally relevant, Houstonians have been left standing in the rain: CSN-Houston, the new regional sports network in which the Rockets hold 30% equity, and which holds exclusive broadcasting rights to all Rockets games, still hasn’t worked out a deal with the major cable/dish providers. The Rockets’ price has undoubtedly gone up but the fans have for now gotten the short end of the stick.)
There was just a different buzz in the building. From staffers to those at higher ranks, the organization was alive. You could feel it in the halls.
I checked the lockerroom and thankfully, Harden had been given Kevin Martin’s old seat, a locker on the side of the room. (On the contrary, Jeremy Lin’s locker is in the corner of the room, a location which has caused much frustration for me and my colleagues due to its extreme inaccessibility postgame.) The Beard, sitting in his chair, laced up his kicks before springing up and heading out towards the court. I followed.
Harden went through his routine, lofting threes with his feathery, now-familiar touch. He then moved in, taking dribble step-outs in both directions. Seemingly satisfied, he then left and headed towards the tunnel.
As tip-off approached, I headed to my seat. I noticed then, for the first time, the beautiful new scoreboard staring right back at me. I’m told it’s the biggest indoor arena scoreboard in all of North America. And boy is it a beauty. During the game, it boasted the capability to show instant replay with live-game action simultaneously. In HD, the screen significantly multiplied the entire viewing experience.
For once, fans were already in their seats. Attached beards could be spotted all around. You could smell the festive mood.
When Harden came back out for warm-ups, and the camera panned in, the crowd erupted. “What great fortune,” I thought to myself. On the night they had been planning for so long to unveil their new toy, they could use it to highlight their new star. What luck. Everything came together. Without Harden, would anyone even care for the scoreboard? Would anyone even come to watch? Instead, the place was packed. The Houston Rockets were once again an event for a Saturday night.
Harden took the mic and addressed the fans to a thunderous ovation, removing any doubts, if there were actually any at all, that he is the absolute face of this franchise.
(James Harden introduced at 5:25.)
Then came the lineup introductions shown above. When Harden was introduced last, the crowd’s reaction was almost deafening. Welcoming first and introduced last, in Houston, it all starts and ends with Harden.
The game began and Beard picked up where he left off, reaching double figures within the first half of the first quarter. He scored effortlessly, bulldozing his way to the hoop or stepping back for jumpers. The crowd held its breath each time he touched the ball.
There’s something different about basketball, which I wrote about when Kobe last came to town. Unlike the other sports, with just five men, in basketball, you watch individuals. There are no helmets or hats. You watch to see single men do things you yourself could never do. The court is really a stage for a performer and the bowled-shape of the arena amplifies this effect. All eyes peer in on the artist when he has the ball.
James Harden is not a “superstar” in the sense we use that term. But he’s undoubtedly amongst the 15 to 20 best the league has to offer and was coming off two breathtaking performances. He’s better than anything the Rockets have for years had to offer. And he has much room to grow. For as hard as the Rockets of the past few years fought, for as many personalities they had, this is what they were missing. This is what the people come to watch. The solo man upon whom they can pin their hopes. They want to be dazzled by the hero.
As the game waned on, the Rockets’ lead slipped away making way for a dogfight down the stretch. On the final possession of regulation, with the score tied, Harden held it, milking down the clock. The crowd went delirious with anticipation, wondering if their savior would once again do the impossible. Beard drove and dodged, but the move was perfectly anticipated by Blazers guard Wes Matthews and the play was snuffed out.
Portland ran away with it in overtime with the Rockets looking clearly out of gas, Harden in particular. Houston was playing its third game in four nights and it was showing. Beard finished 8-24 overall for 24 points, having numerous layup attempts down the stretch roll out.
Afterwards, I couldn’t even make it to Harden’s locker. The swarm of media was close to five-fold from what we’re used to. There was just no physical way to get into the scrum. Minutes before Harden spoke, we had all gathered around Jeremy Lin. I was fortunate enough to get in on that circle. I understood now what things were like for media when McGrady and Yao were in tow, or on other teams with big names. In my past two years here, we never went to anyone in particular – we just got quotes from whomever. Now, there were two clear figures of interest and seemingly, no one else mattered.
After the Lakers’ summer acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, much was made that the lockout had gone for naught. In Houston, the Harden trade makes the opposite case.
By making it tough for Oklahoma City to hoard talent, the new punitive rules have brought life to my city. The new tax regime instilled parity, breaking up a trio of top-20 players by sending one to a team that had previously had none. Unlike before, people in Houston now care about the Rockets. They genuinely care and believe.
You see, in the past, the sweat and blood that men like Luis Scola, Carl Landry, Goran Dragic, and Kyle Lowry poured for this team was much appreciated. But it was appreciation for overcoming the odds. Now, people have a reason for real hope. They know it will take long but they see the clear path. They see that it can be done. They’ll buy beards and they’ll buy tickets. The coffers will be filled and the city and organization will have life. A piece of the pie from Oklahoma City will be brought to Houston.
We saw last night that there is still much, much work to be done. Outside of the guards, no one else can really score. Few have experience. It could take years before the team is a viable contender. But with the James Harden trade, there is again hope and excitement. There is life. The franchise again has a face. We don’t know what move is next, or what else will come along the way, but opening night showed us, in Houston, it will all start and end with Harden.