If anyone understands what James Harden is feeling these days, it's Kevin Martin.
Martin used to be Harden. Used to enjoy exactly what the former Thunder favorite has now.
“Oh, it's great,” Martin said of being the so-called man. “You wake up happy every morning.”
Of course, there was a catch.
“You just hope the team is successful,” Martin said, “because it makes your mornings easier to wake up. And you hope you have great teammates to guide you through the tough times.”
Harden returns to Oklahoma City on Wednesday night. He's not just a member of the Houston Rockets. He's now “The Man” on the Rockets.
“It's a big step in your career,” Martin said.
It is perhaps what Harden wanted all along, in addition to the most money possible. He got both but had to leave the team that drafted him and the only NBA city he's ever known to get it. Consequently, the Thunder last month traded Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to Houston in exchange for Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks.
On Wednesday night, at roughly 7:10 p.m., Harden will play in Chesapeake Energy Arena for the first time as a visitor.
“He's going to be hit with a lot of emotions, especially the closer it gets to tip-off,” Martin said. “The fans, they love him here. He had success. And it should be a good welcoming for him.”
Martin spent 3½ years as “The Man” in Sacramento. He averaged 22.2 points during his 214-game tenure as the Kings' top scorer. That stretch included a career-high 24.6-point average in 2008-09.
He had established himself as one of the most lethal scorers in the league, but Martin was growing more frustrated with losing. The Kings were 88 games under .500 while Martin was their top scorer.
And so 54 games into the 2009-10 season, Sacramento shipped Martin to Houston. He toiled in relative obscurity with the Rockets for another 2½ seasons — despite averaging 21.3 points over his 144 games — before being traded to the Thunder.
After life as a leading man on a loser, Martin has found solace in playing a supportive role on a winner.
“We're focused on getting back to the championship and hopefully winning it,” Martin said. “That's what puts a smile on my face every morning.”
Martin still remembers his first game against the Kings. Today, he says he didn't return seeking to prove a point.
“They knew I could play,” he said. “I just went in and did what I did best, score the ball.”
“I scored pretty good that night,” he added, “so it was kind of fun.”
Martin was being nice. He killed the Kings. He scored 39 points on April 12, 2010. He made 11 of 20 shots and went 16-for-16 from the free-throw line while playing 40 minutes in a 117-107 Rockets win.
“That was emotional because that was the first place I played at and I knew how the fans loved me there,” Martin said. “They didn't want to see me go and I didn't necessarily want to go. So I think the first time when you go back after being traded, that's the toughest one.”
Martin now can talk freely about all the things Harden can't, or won't, fess up to — at least not before the game. If Harden has any regrets, he isn't likely to voice them. This is the path he chose.
“I'm pretty sure he's happy to be there. He's in a good situation,” said Russell Westbrook. “He has the green light over there. He plays freely, and he's able to do basically what he wants.”
Prior to Tuesday's game against Toronto, though, the Rockets were just 6-7, with six games against Western Conference heavyweights looming.
Tough times certainly could be ahead.
Still, Harden entered Tuesday's game tied four fourth in the league in scoring with LeBron James at 25.2 points per game.
It's a double life that Martin is glad he left behind, but one he can't be mad at Harden for embracing.
“With the opportunities we get,” Martin said, “we're both doing great things so congrats to him.”