James Harden put ink to a massive 5-year, $80 million dollar contract shortly before taking the floor for the first time as a member of the Rockets on Wednesday and proceeded to single-handedly tear apart the Detroit Pistons.
Finishing with 37 points, 12 assists, six rebounds and four steals, Harden set the highlight reels on fire and gave some credibility to the idea that he can be a franchise player rather than a sixth man candidate for the first time in his career.
The media immediately responded on Thursday with the notion that the Rockets are suddenly a contender for a playoff spot in the West. The reality of the situation paints another picture, however.
Let’s start with Wednesday’s game. The Detroit Pistons have been in a lull since their championship caliber teams that included Rick Hamilton and Chauncey Billups broke up. Last season, the team finished tenth in the Eastern Conference with a record of 25-41 and proved to be little more than a doormat for the league’s playoff teams.
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Tearing apart the Pistons doesn’t exactly warrant the christening of a new superstar, even if he did it in extravagant fashion. On top of that, it’s the first game of the season. The Los Angeles Lakers are 0-2, but does anyone really believe they won’t be a playoff contender? Not really, because early season hype is tough to invest long term hope in. For now, Harden is shining bright, but in a few weeks he’ll have a target on his back and the games won’t be set moments after the player signed the biggest contract of his life with a new franchise.
But in debunking this notion that Houston could be in the postseason, let’s not be skeptical about Harden himself. After all, he is undoubtedly an amazing athlete, an Olympic gold medalist and a basketball talent of a rare breed that the shooting guard position isn’t exactly overflowing with these days. Let’s instead take a look at the Rockets and their surroundings.
Harden may very well be an all-star player, but he’s the only one with a realistic shot at that achievement on the Rockets roster. The next closest thing comes in the form of the team’s other new signing, last season’s phenomenon, Jeremy Lin.
While Lin is undeniably talented, he also has a scouting report against him that says he can’t go to his left and will have a hard time matching his successful stint with the Knicks now that he’s no longer a surprise.
In their first game together, Lin helped Harden with 12 points and 8 assists, but stats like that night in and night out won’t be enough to help Harden carry a lineup that includes a rather weak front court. Omer Asik is the only player in that front court with any meaningful experience, but isn’t much more intimidating to an opponent than compatriots Marcus Morris and Chandler Parsons.
The bench isn’t much better, with Daequan Cook, Carlos Delfino and Knicks cast off Toney Douglas comprising the big names. Can Harden go from third rate star and the first choice off Oklahoma City’s bench to carrying a team that finished barely over .500 last season with more front court weapons and a back court with another quality point guard in Kyle Lowry and alternate scorer in Kevin Martin? No small task indeed.
Perhaps Harden’s biggest challenge isn’t getting the best out of his teammates in a long and arduous season, it’s the division he’s moved to. The Rockets face San Antonio, Dallas and Memphis, all of which are likely playoff teams, a combined fifteen times over the course of the season.
The Western Conference is difficult enough to navigate for a young team without having to play in one of basketball’s toughest divisions on a team that is void of the necessary experience to make the postseason.
While Houston should be celebrating Harden’s arrival and fans around the league can look forward to the rise of a new superstar, expectations for the Rockets franchise should not be placed any higher than staying out of the basement of the Southwest division. Playoff dreams should remain just that, dreams, because the reality in Houston is that the road ahead is going to be bumpy until general manager Daryl Morey can draft or trade for a front court difference maker to help smooth things out.