Will James Harden Go on to Be an NBA Superstar Now That He's Left Oklahoma City?

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistOctober 28, 2012

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JUNE 14:  James Harden #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder calls out in the first half with the ball against the Miami Heat in Game Two of the 2012 NBA Finals at Chesapeake Energy Arena on June 14, 2012 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

After his relocation to the Houston Rockets, shooting guard James Harden won't face any shortage of opportunities, either on the floor or as a franchise-defining star.

As he embarks upon a journey with a young, high-upside team, the real question is whether the 23-year-old's game will continue to have a higher profile than his beard. Everyone wants to be liked, but ideally liked for the right reasons.

Harden succeeded in that respect for the most part last season, earning Sixth Man of the Year honors thanks to an efficient 16.8 points per game and impressive all-around contributions off the bench.

With the Houston Rockets, he'll be expected to do even more, but he'll also have the chance to do just that.

The Rockets embarked upon a massive reorganization this summer, shedding Kyle Lowry, Luis Scola, Gordan Dragic and now Kevin Martin. Last season's roster didn't appear to be going anywhere fast, so GM Daryl Morey opted to go in a decidedly new direction.

That direction came to include Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik and three first-round picks. There had already been talk that at least one of those picks could be used in an attempt to land either Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum. It's no surprise that Jeremy Lamb wound up shipped to the Oklahoma City Thunder in this deal.

Houston's rotation will still be young, largely unproven and loaded with potential.

But despite the progress Morey had made shaking things up, the club was still missing something important—namely a go-to guy to take some pressure off Jeremy Lin.

Of course, Kevin Martin could score with the best of them, at least when he was healthy. At the end of the day, though, he was more of a poor-man's Ray Allen than a scorer with the versatility to lead a team. Harden makes his impact on both ends of the floor, and he does so with more than a jump shot alone.

He's already secured something of a cult following, even outside of OKC. Due to his famous facial accessory and southpaw sensibilities, Harden's drawn more attention than your average sixth-man success story.

You can't label his rise to fame as a case of style over substance. The production has been there, and his contributions have been timely (except in those NBA Finals, obviously).

All the same, Harden never dealt with the kind of pressure borne by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He won't have to this season, either, and that's probably a good thing.

The Rockets won't feature a proper "superstar" this season, because—as a team—they're just not good enough, at least not yet.

Harden could score 25 points a game, and Houston would still struggle to make the playoffs.

In time, however, Harden and Lin could both justify the hype that's come their ways. In fact, they could make that hype look tame in comparison to what's ahead.

It won't come easily, though. As much as Harden helped his fellow stars in OKC, he also benefited from them. When the fourth quarter came around, he was the third option. When opposing defenses wanted to stop the bleeding, they were more likely to live with Harden's shots than letting the other two take over.

It's also hard to pinpoint Harden's ceiling, or even to determine whether he'll continue performing at the high level he exhibited in 2011-12.

Sure, it's unlikely the guy will take a step back after his third season. It's not like he's declining in the back end of his career.

On the other hand, we've only seen him shoot at that 49-percent rate for one season. That mark was just under 44 percent in his sophomore campaign and 40 percent as a rookie. Perhaps we can't read too much into that Finals cold spell or the subsequent preseason freeze, but nor should we assume Harden will shoot at a 50-percent clip from here on out.

Until we've seen him excel as a first option, we really won't know if he's worth the kind of money the Rockets are about to give him.

He'll deal with greater expectations, and he'll do so with more hands in his face. 

Harden may very well pass those tests with flying colors, but he may also come to realize his success had a lot to do with the fact that he wasn't his team's best player. The fact that he'll be paid like one doesn't mean he is one.

That's a risk Houston had to take.