Welcome to Harden Week, a celebration of all things James Harden!
Forrest is a native Houstonian living temporarily in Austin forever. He’s a regular contributor at Red94.net, where he describes exactly why we should all be Rockets fans. He can be found on twitter as @dunots.
The Rockets aren’t the worst team in the western conference. They’re on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time since the Rockets saw the second round in 2009. The first time since Yao Ming’s broken foot forced him to miss the last four games of that series against the Lakers. The first time since Tracy McGrady watched his team win from the bench while his days in Houston slipped past. The first time in the entire duration of James Harden’s NBA career. Houston’s future looks bright right now, as they exceed a league’s expectations behind their shiny new bearded star. The Rockets seem like a blessed franchise this season.
We’re reminded of previous glory. Ask a Rockets diehard who the best player ever was, excepting Jordan, and you won’t hear anyone say LeBron or Kareem or Russell. It’s Olajuwon all the way down. We remember a team that surpassed a young Shaq and a veteran Robinson in the same year. We remember Clyde Drexler as a Rocket, now and forever. We knew the passion of 13 points in 35 seconds, and the security of a Yao Ming free throw.
Houston had been spoiled. We’d seen the glow of the Olajuwon era give way to a decade of Yao Ming. We were treated to a win streak that’s only just been surpassed. And we were spoiled by Daryl Morey, who made us think brilliance was an everyday occurrence. When a group of role players pushed the Lakers to the brink, we knew that the winner of that series would win it all. And they did. But we thought it would be the guys in red. All we could remember was a team that excelled despite. Everything. We remembered that a sixth seed once won it all. And as the red turned to gray for three years, the memories turned it all to bitter ash.
The league may have forgotten those three teams, that interstitial period between Yao Ming and James Harden. But we remember. We remember seeing Yao Ming struggle and fight to work back to health, only to have it shattered a mere five games into his next season. We remember a Tracy McGrady that everyone else has been able to quietly turn away from. We remember Trevor Ariza, Johnny Flynn and Terrence Williams. In the annals of the league, this was a tragic footnote about players’ bodies ending their careers all too soon. For Houston, it was a nightmare.
And when it all came crashing down, we came unglued. How could this end this way? The answer couldn’t be simply bad luck. Houston’s cultural inferiority complex won’t allow anything less than total culpability and total excellence. Daryl Morey nearly killed us with kindness, and many of us wanted to kill him back. Someone should have known Yao and T-Mac would go down. Morey should have traded them sooner, rebuilt sooner, won more, hired better coaches. Head coach Rick Adelman was too concerned with winning and not with growing the next Hakeem out of Jordan Hill. Rockets owner Les Alexander was sabotaging the team by being so afraid of rebuilding that he wouldn’t tank a year.
But we didn’t really want a tank job. We just wanted to get back to the place we belong as soon as possible. To Houston, the Rockets are a contender. This year, last year, every year, and it’s because of how good we think the organization is that we hate that same organization if anything goes wrong. Morey can see the future, control the weather, make Von Wafer and Aaron Brooks into weapons. How can we keep missing the playoffs? Why aren’t we showing everyone that we belong?
As Kevin McHale’s rockets dropped six games in a row last season, all was lost. The proudest underdogs in the world were having to see why they remained underdogs. The teams that nearly made the playoffs weren’t underachieving symphonies of efficiency that just required a tweak from a lackluster Morey. They were just… placeholders. All the assets and all the planning in the world might help tomorrow, but it won’t help today. Most teams in the league have to put their heads down and power through bad years to get to good ones. Many in Houston called for it. But watching a team desperately tread the waters of mediocrity only to end up right back in the middle was too much. It was too close to home. You aren’t exceptional, Houston. You’re not an overlooked gem. You’re just doing the best with what little you have, and that doesn’t count for anything.
We were spoiled and angry and looking ourselves in the face. And our reflection was killing us. What if we weren’t better than Lakers fans, Mavs fans, Jazz fans? What if we were just delusional, and all the stats and efficiency and value contracts and Shane Battier in the world can’t beat a superstar playing hero ball? Trades fell through, were vetoed. Players’ careers ended. Others simply left for bigger contracts. Some were traded for pieces that looked valueless when every star would rather play at the bottom of the sea than Houston. And just when we had resigned ourselves to years of rebuilding, just when that eternal hope for next year had finally borne too much weight, a hand reached down into the pit.
James Harden was here to save us.
His number 13 jersey will hang next to 22, 23, 24, 34, 35 and CD one day. After Yao’s 11, Harden’s next. He need only finish his career and fulfill the hopes and dreams of a few million people. He’s already halfway there. When the trade was announced on a party-filled Halloween weekend, pundits around the league added a few wins to the paltry totals they’d predicted, and there was no reason to disagree. But we knew. When Morey said he was shooting for the playoffs, everyone knew it was just an organization staying positive in the face of an ugly but necessary year. But we knew. The system works.
James Harden’s not just an amazing basketball player with a stunning future ahead of him. He’s also the earthly incarnation of everything Morey’s system promises. He’s reckless, but he adheres to a system optimized to create insane stat lines. Threes. Layups. Fast breaks. Free throws. Defense would be nice, but hardly priority one. He’s an American, but he borrows pages from books around the world. His eurostep is in a tier with the Manus and the Wades of the league. His threes are manifold and merciless. He defies positionality, and runs the offense more often than not. He’s got the potential to be anything, anywhere, and to take over a game any day of the week.
But more importantly, he’s a symbol that it was all worth it. His beard, his tight jerseys, his pregame routine with Lin and Parsons, all of these are as critical as his scoring averages. If he never gets any better than he is today, Houston will put him in the pantheon. Because he was meant to be here, and he signed on the dotted line. Making the playoffs would be beautiful, but not necessary. He saved the Rockets from irrelevance; mediocrity hardly matters. We know, now, that with planning, patience and bravado, you can take advantage of a changing NBA. You can get that star player. Morey’s system nearly buckled under the weight of its own expectations, and we were ready to let the rubble crush us.
We don’t have to wonder, now, how long we could go without a losing season or a playoff berth. We don’t have to look in that mirror and see just how spoiled we’d become that a scant three years on the outside was intolerable. We don’t have to accept the truism that you have to get bad to get good. James Harden let us forget our inferiority complex and get back to our underdog complex. None of us were surprised at his rapid metamorphosis into a superstar. Of course no one else saw what we did. It all fit in too perfectly with the narrative.
It may be irrational, but that doesn’t matter. If you ask me to analyze which teams will make the finals for the next five years, you’ll hear plenty about the Heat, Thunder, Spurs, Clippers. But if you ask if I believe that James Harden will lead the Rockets to the finals, there’s no hesitation. There’s no contemplation. Yes. They can do it. He can do it. And my biggest concern is if they’ll be wearing those great ketchup and mustard alternate jerseys when they do it. Everyone else might think that’s insane. It doesn’t matter to us. The world makes sense again, now, thanks to James Harden.
James Harden came into our lives, and he changed our expectations. His team is shattering the idea that you have to fail first. His team is ripping off the win totals strung around his neck at the start of the year. And his city is believing, now, that a playoff appearance may not be enough. Only he could make us ask for a second round series in a rebuilding year. We’re unreasonable and we expect too much from the team, and we love Harden for letting us do it. James Harden’s already done all he has to; he reminds us of greatness.