James Harden and Jeremy Lin's Long-Term Deals Solidify Houston Rockets' Future
One early-season game against the Detroit Pistons is, well, one early-season game against the Detroit Pistons, but page one of the James Harden-Jeremy Lin Story was a soaring success for the Houston Rockets.
Harden's exploits in his $80 million debut have been well-documented—37 points, a career-high 12 assists, six rebounds, four steals and a block—to the point that Lin, a pop culture phenomenon in his own right, was but a footnote to the story of that 105-96 road win.
Even though Linsanity, for his part, was none too shabby, with 12 points, eight assists, four rebounds and four steals in his first action in a red uniform.
There are still 81 games remaining in the 2012-13 NBA regular season, with millions to be paid out to Harden and Lin and every opportunity for them to either earn that money or fall flat. So far, it appears as though the Rockets finally have a foundation around which to build for the future.
Finally, as it's been four years in the making. The Rockets haven't had much hope of any kind since the 2008-09 season, when the pairing of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming was last relatively healthy.
"Relatively" being the operative word. T-Mac took his "Half Man, Half a Season" act to a whole new level that year. He sat out 18 games during the first half of the season before claiming that his knee hadn't healed properly from offseason surgery, without having previously disclosed such to the organization.
He ultimately elected to undergo microfracture surgery on a part of his knee that team doctors claimed was cosmetic to his ability to play, thereby submarining Houston's season (and perhaps, setting the stage for Dwight Howard's wariness of entering "disgruntled star opts for surgery out of spite" and incurring further damage this past spring).
Nonetheless, Yao Ming and the then-Ron Artest carried the Rockets to their first playoff series victory since 1997 and managed to push the eventual-champion Los Angeles Lakers to seven games, despite losing Yao to yet another foot fracture in Game 3 of that matchup.
And it's been hum-drum basketball in Houston ever since—or had been until Harden and Lin first took the floor together. The Rockets have posted winning records in each of the last three years, though nothing good enough to finish any higher than ninth place in the Western Conference.
During that time, Rockets GM Daryl Morey—who Grantland's Bill Simmons refers to affectionately as "Dork Elvis" for his enthusiastic employment of advanced statistical analysis—had done his darndest to keep the team competitive while searching high and low for a star around whom to fashion a formidable outfit.
He came within a David Stern edict of doing just that last December, when Pau Gasol was nearly on his way to Houston as part of the nixed Chris Paul trade.
He tried desperately to land Dwight Howard this summer but fell short when whatever combination of draft picks, young players and salary relief he offered to Orlando Magic GM Rob Hennigan was rejected in favor of a package of assets from the Lakers, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Denver Nuggets.
But, like any good opportunist, Morey kept his options open, and as a result, his Rockets now boast arguably the NBA's brightest young backcourt in Harden and Lin.
To be sure, this dynamic duo won't lead the Rockets back to title contention (and probably not even the playoffs) right away. The West is far too deep, and Houston's roster is far too short on experience, both individually and collectively, to reasonably expect this group to keep hooping into late April and early May.
What fans can expect, though, is an exciting, young team that will surprise some people, win some games and provide an entertaining spectacle on a nightly basis, albeit one encumbered by growing pains more than occasionally.
The hope for the Rockets understandably lies in the future. Harden is all of 23 years old and has shown tremendous promise without a full-time starting gig until now. He'll be under contract in Houston until the 2017-18 season, which may or may not come in the aftermath of the next lockout.
Lin, now 24, will be off the books after the 2014-15 season. If he pans out as a reliable starting point guard (if not something more), then the Rockets will stand to reap considerable reward from their investment, either by keeping him or by dangling him on the open market.
And if not, he'll be a valuable commodity in 2014, when his contract will be that of the soon-to-expire variety.
In the meantime, the Rockets will be flush with cap space, young players and a heap of other fungible assets with which to reshape the rest of the roster around Harden and Lin.
Omer Asik, a 26-year-old center whom they signed to a replica of Lin's deal this summer, looked solid on both ends of the floor in his first Houstonian action and seems likely to be in the mix for the Most Improved Player Award at season's end.
Second-year forward Chandler Parsons was effective in his own right in Detroit (11 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and is signed through 2014-15 at less than $1 million per year.
Houston's cupboard is also stacked with the likes of Patrick Patterson, Royce White, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas, none of whom saw the floor in the opener despite showing considerable promise as prospects. They could all figure into the equation as trade bait while Morey continues to survey the landscape for favorable deals.
Most importantly, the Rockets will have the financial flexibility with which to lure marquee free agents to Space City in the summers to come.
The yearly terms of Harden's contract have yet to be disclosed, though his money may or may not restrict the Rockets' ability to offer a max contract to someone like, say, Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith. That will depend on how the front office goes about picking and choosing which options on cheap young players to keep and which to decline.
Either way, Houston should have the resources to pursue some second-tier free agents come July (i.e. Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, David West and Nikola Pekovic), and if Morey and company find it more prudent to restrict their long-term spending, they can look to load up their cap with shorter pacts and keep their chips on the table for another year.
The point being, the Rockets now have better-defined options from which to choose rather than a Panglossian amalgamation of possible worlds that underwhelms at most every turn.
How long will it be until the Rockets are title contenders again?
That's a fancy way of saying the Rockets have a direction, albeit an unfamiliar one. After all, this is a franchise whose success over the years has been built on the shoulders of giants, from Elvin Hayes and Moses Malone to Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Yao Ming.
But, the NBA is a different league now than it was then, with a game that favors perimeter players proficient in the art of the pick-and-roll over traditional, back-to-the-basket behemoths and an economic model that rewards flexibility and punishes top-heavy rigidity.
With James Harden and Jeremy Lin in the mix, the Rockets are well-equipped to weather what's to come in The Association from all directions. A few more shrewd moves, and in due time, they may well have their collective gaze affixed to the Larry O'Brien Trophy as well.
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