Who Has the Brighter Future, Houston Rockets or OKC Thunder?
From the moment the Oklahoma City Thunder traded budding superstar James Harden to the Houston Rockets there has been a sense of pessimism surrounding the guard's former team and a sense of optimism surrounding his new one.
By pairing Harden with point guard Jeremy Lin, the Rockets have a solid foundation built for a franchise that now looks far more intriguing to potential free agents.
The backcourt duo of Harden and Lin has looked dynamic at times through the season's early going, although it appears they need to build a stronger rapport with one another if they want to push the Rockets into the Western Conference playoff picture.
While the immediate future may not look as promising, the Rockets have the core pieces in place to make a run at Western Conference relevancy sometime very soon. According to HoopsHype, Lin is signed through the 2014-15 season, while Harden's max deal has him committed to the franchise through 2017-18.
Aside from Lin and Harden the Rockets don't have much money tied up in big names. Center Omer Asik is slated to make $25 million over the course of his deal, but that's as pricey as the Rockets' role players get.
The future of the Rockets franchise will be shaped over the next few offseasons, and with some money to spend, it appears as if general manager Daryl Morey will have a real opportunity to have an intriguing sell to make to some of the league's most coveted free agents (Josh Smith, perhaps?).
While the Thunder's decision to move Harden will be dissected for months and even years, it's clear that they have a steady franchise infrastructure in place that will keep them competitive throughout much of the next decade.
After appearing in their first NBA Finals since moving to the Midwest, the Thunder are in prime position, with a young roster that's loaded with star talent and capable role players.
The obvious prizes for the Thunder are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, each of whom is signed well beyond 2015. Oklahoma City's other big piece is versatile forward Serge Ibaka, whose deal extends through the 2017 season.
With a dynamic core trio comprised of Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook, the immediate and long-term future of the franchise appear to be in good hands.
A trend to keep an eye on over the next few months will be the play of Kevin Martin, who was acquired to be Harden's replacement, if only for just one year.
Martin's deal will expire after the 2012-13 season, and the Thunder will then be faced with a difficult decision: Extend Martin and hold on to his reliable scoring or let him walk and replace him with a player who comes cheaper.
An ideal situation for the Thunder would be if one of their current reserves emerged as a big-game player, someone like Eric Maynor, or perhaps Jeremy Lamb down the line.
What sets the Thunder apart from the Rockets isn't just their depth, but also their star talent and chemistry which are light-years ahead compared to that of the Rockets. Simply looking at the two teams' starting lineups it's clear that there's only one position at which the Rockets have a significant advantage: Shooting guard.
Small forward Chandler Parsons has also looked strong in the early going this season, averaging 15.5 points per game on over 47 percent shooting from the floor. Parsons is no Kevin Durant, but he could develop into more than a nice role player who helps take the onus off of Harden and Lin.
Even if the Rockets do add big names via free agency, the Thunder have an established continuity on both ends of the floor, although many would argue that Westbrook has been more of a detriment than a help on the offensive end.
What hurts the Rockets is that while Jeremy Lin is an attractive name that grabs headlines, he doesn't necessarily produce wins at a high rate.
So far this season Lin is averaging just 10.2 points on 34.8 percent shooting from the field (24.3 percent from three), while his assist numbers have stayed consistent with what they were a year ago (6.1 per game).
Lin is still turning the ball over nearly three times per game, a trend that will have to be reversed for the Rockets to become championship-caliber.
The Rockets are an intriguing team and a highly entertaining League Pass watch, but it's going to take some dramatic roster shakeups for them to enter the conversation of the Western Conference elite somewhere down the line.
With the Thunder firmly established as an elite contender there are few holes they need to plug in, and they shouldn't have a hard time finding willing and able replacements for those deficiencies.
Overall, we can identify a stark contrast between the Rockets and the Thunder. One team is poised to emerge as a Western Conference spoiler while the other has a legitimate shot at multiple titles over the next five years.
The Thunder are in good hands, hands that will likely be hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy sometime over the next few years.
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