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NBA Sunday: Houston’s Rocket Fuel

From lowly sixth man to bonafide leader, James Harden leads the Houston Rockets’ improbable ascent.



Deep down inside, James Harden always knew that he was more than one whose destiny was to merely take flight in an atmosphere surrounded by simple creatures.

Relegated to sixth man and commonly discounted among the game’s other titans, deep down inside, he knew that he had the potential to be one that soared not in awe of LeBron James or Chris Paul, but with them.

And when Harden looked at the likes of Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony and even his own teammate, Kevin Durant, he knew, deep down inside, that he had the ability to soar with the celestials.

So, it is quite fitting that he became a Houston Rocket.

Together, he and general manager Daryl Morey held hands and resolved to try to reach the moon together.

They appear to be much closer than anyone believed.

Years ago, back in Oklahoma City, Harden was quite happy playing for the Thunder. He believed that his skills and talents were under appreciated by fans and the NBA’s media, but he understood that was the byproduct of playing third fiddle to both Durant and Russell Westbrook. He viewed it as the price someone had to pay in order to fulfill dynastic potential, and with his legacy, he was willing to pay it.

But when the Thunder cited concerns with their ledger and gave Harden an ultimatum to either accept a below market value four-year, $54 million deal or be traded to the Houston Rockets, Harden chose the latter.

It was a decision that has altered the trajectory of his career.


As the NBA season begins its fifth week of play, the Rockets have managed to stay near the top of the NBA’s Western Conference, much to the surprise of most onlookers.

In order to put himself in a position to be able to both acquire and pay Harden the five-year, $80 million extension the deal required, Morey had to take major risks which included not re-signing Goran Dragic and opting to amnesty the still-productive Luis Scola back in the Summer of 2012. Those moves were made in an attempt for Morey’s Rockets to coax the Orlando Magic into trading Dwight Howard to the Rockets back in the summer of 2012 and when that failed to materialize, Morey found himself in need of what he referred to as a “foundational player.”

He saw that potential in Harden, and with the stalemate that has ensued in Oklahoma City, a union made a lot of sense.

Fortunately, for Harden and Morey alike, that union happened. Harden got the opportunity to show the world how special of a player he truly was, while Morey got a young stud to build around and showcase to other would-be free agents who were eager to play with a youngster with All-Star potential.

Howard’s decision to leave the extra $30 million on the table to join Harden in Houston was the result of diligence and patience on the part of Morey, but it was more so the result of Harden showing the same flash and potential that Dwyane Wade once showed Shaquille O’Neal back when O’Neal demanded a trade from those same Los Angeles Lakers.

One year and 54 wins after forming his dynamic duo, Morey, believing that it takes three to tango in today’s NBA, again rolled the dice.  In an attempt to fortify his team and assemble a big three of his own, Morey essentially lost three of his team’s top seven rotation players—all three of whom started for his team at one point—for nothing.

The pie-in-the-sky scenario revolved around signing either Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh, but in order to do so, Morey had to extricate himself from the contracts of Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin. After trading each player in salary dumps, Morey then found himself in an impossible situation as it related to Chandler Parsons, who had received a three-year, $46 million offer sheet from Mark Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks.

Because of salary cap mechanics and the way cap holds interact with cap space, Morey was unable to match the terms of Parson’s offer sheet without it erasing the cap space that was earmarked for either Bosh or Anthony. In the end, Bosh and Anthony decided to return to Miami and New York, respectively, and the Rockets opted to let Parsons walk, not wanting to make such a sizable financial commitment to him before having a third All-Star in tow.

Morey ended up signing Trevor Ariza, but he was mostly looked upon as a consolation prize. For the most part, the expectation heading into this season were that the Rockets would take a step back and that expectation was reasonable considering all that had transpired.

Yet still, through the first 17 games of the 2014-15 season, the Rockets are on pace to win 62 games and have done so despite minuscule expectations.

And they have done so mostly because of Harden, his leadership and his growth into the foundational player Morey thought he could become.


As a player, Harden is flawed in many ways. He is a brilliant scorer but has had consistent issues with dominating the basketball and breaking plays. He forces shots sometimes and although he will enter play on Dec. 1 as the league leader in free-throw attempts per game, he has not shown a consistent ability to create meaningful offensive opportunities for his teammates.

Defensively, he has been woeful, at least up until this season. On a given night, Harden will admirably fight over screens, apply ball pressure and do his best to hold his own, and on others, he won’t even attempt to get back on defense or hustle for the sake of saving a basket.

But for his all of his shortcomings, Harden has filled the same type of leadership void that Amar’e Stoudemire once filled in New York.

NBA locker rooms have cultures and collectively, teammates have expectations of one another. For the most part, the league is full of players who are trying to secure a long-term contract for themselves and provide for their families. Many of the journeymen and players on rookie contracts that make up a large percentage of the league’s teams think about themselves and their best interests before they think about the team as a collective.

Many NBA players simply look at their team as their employer. Ted Leonsis, Jim Dolan and Micky Arison are the guys who sign the checks. They are the owners and the establishment and often, they are merely looked at as a means of subsistence for their employees.

Most NBA players wants to win championships, but all NBA players wants to feed their families. That is not an indictment, it is human nature.

And what all NBA locker rooms need is at least one player who sets the tone for all of the others around him. All NBA locker rooms need a player who, by his deeds, shows his teammates that he is prepared, working diligently, trying to improve and trying to take his team to the next level.

By his deeds shall he be known.

Show up to practice on time, stay back after doing your own work, complete drills with expediency and zeal. Remain in tip top shape. Rip into teammates whose effort is lacking and lead by example. Those are the qualities of a true leader and it is those qualities that Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant have consistently exhibited.

From the day any NBA player walks through the door and sees Duncan, Garnett or Bryant, whether he is a has-been or a never-was, he knows that there are expectations placed upon him to live up to a standard. That attitude, that edict, that expectation—it all begins and ends with a true “foundational player.”

In that regard, Harden has passed with flying colors.

The term that we have coined to personify those characteristics and expectations is “leadership,” and quite simply, in Houston, Harden has grown into one.

He willingly wears the bullseye on his chest and does the little things that have made an impression on all of those around him. This past summer, after Paul George had suffered his gruesome leg injury, it was Harden who stood up as the only first-team All-NBA player who remained on the team.

Who do you think coach Mike Krzyzewski leaned on to provide his young players with insight and knowledge of the international game?

Krzyzewski willingly told the world about Harden and what he did for the USA National Team in the days leading up to the FIBA World Cup, and his comments only underscored what many of us already knew of Harden.

He simply rises to the challenge.

He did so for the Thunder, he did so for the Rockets both before and after Dwight Howard, and this season, he has done so, even in Howard’s absence.


For the Rockets, championship contention requires a healthy Howard and with the big man dealing with recent knee injuries, Harden has continued to lead the Rockets to victory with Trevor Ariza, Tarik Black, Jason Terry, Kostas Papanikolaou and Donatas Montiejunas flanking him.

That his Rockets, through 17 games, are on a better win pace than they were one year ago, all things considered, is amazing.

Certainly, that is not all attributable to Harden, but it certainly does begin with him.

Capably and admirably, Harden opted to pursue his own destiny and show the world that he could become the type of player that he believed he could be.

From Grant Hill to Eddy Curry and from Brandon Roy to Derrick Rose, the idea of a young player failing to fulfill his potential is one of the most difficult things for someone who loves the game to witness, but sometimes, we allow an individual’s shortcomings on the court to cloud our judgment.

And for those that are unable to see behind the curtain, witnessing Harden’s growth from a quiet and forgotten sixth man to Sixth Man of the Year and from the humbled goat of the 2012 NBA Finals to a confident alpha-male on a contending team… It has been inspiring to witness.

Defiantly, Harden told the world that as long as he and Howard were on the Rockets, they would be a contender. “Everyone else is a role player,” he said.

Arrogant. Cocky… True?

Through 17 games, it certainly seems like it.

Once upon a time, Harden was thought to not be worthy of a starting role and now, he is a someone who merits mention in the early MVP discussion. If you disagree with that, you simply haven’t been watching. But that’s okay, because Harden’s growth into a foundational player is one of the league’s more under-discussed stories.

With an opportunity and with Morey’s belief in him, Harden willingly left Oklahoma City and is attempting to find his own way. Though the journey persists, with Morey, Howard and his belief in himself, Harden’s journey toward the moon continues.

After all, rockets were made to soar.

Clearly, in Houston, is a union that was meant to be.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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