By Anthony Slater – Aslater@opubco.com - @anthonyVslater
The Beard remains, but the city and role have changed.
James Harden was introduced in Houston on Monday afternoon, less than two days after being shipped there as the key piece in a six-player trade that shocked even the most informed of NBA insiders.
“It happened pretty fast,” Harden recalled of the blockbuster news. “I was at dinner and (Thunder General Manager) Sam Presti called me and said I’d been traded to the Rockets and I was kind of in shock. At the same time, it’s a business. I feel great, I feel comfortable in this position with the Houston Rockets.”
An upbeat Harden, alongside Houston GM Daryl Morey (the man that swung the deal), fielded a variety of questions from media members, the most prevalent of those on his new role in the league.
During his first three seasons, Harden excelled in his bench role, scoring 16.8 points in only 31 minutes per game last season, capturing the Sixth Man of the Year Award.
But with that efficient and effective production came a universal feeling that the smooth lefty could shoulder a bigger load (and get the necessary funds for doing so).
A season before many expected, Harden is less than a week away from being hand-delivered that chance, shifting from bench scorer and third banana in OKC to team leader and featured scoring option in Houston.
“It might take some time just because I was coming off the bench,” Harden told reporters. “A lot more minutes will be played and a lot more scoring opportunities, a lot more opportunities with the ball in my hand, but I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been in that position (in college) before and I’m ready for it.”
Harden joins a backcourt, two days before the Rockets’ Wednesday opener in Detroit, that’s already going through an adjustment period.
He’s expected to start alongside Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks’ sensation who took the league by storm last year, before signing a long-term deal with the Rockets this offseason. Both him and Harden struggled this preseason, shooting a combined 29/102 from the field (28.4 percent). But they still project as a dynamic tandem.
“We’re similar,” Harden said of Lin. “He’s a point guard, but he can obviously score the ball. He makes tremendous decisions. He can pass the ball and it’s tough to guard him. It’s the same with me. I can score, but I’m unselfish as well. We’re going to work off each other and then we’ll find a way to get our bigs and shooters involved.”
But make no mistake, even with high expectations for both, Harden is the featured man with the most pressure. He’s expected to get $78.6 million over five years or $60.2 million over four years, Lin’s getting $25.1 over three.
“I’m getting back to my starter ways and being a leader on the court and being that first option which I think I’m definitely ready for,” Harden said. “We’re going to grow together. It’s going to be a building process but we’re going to grow and we’re going to get better and that’s all that matters.”
The next chapter of Harden’s career is set to begin. And he seemed genuinely eager to get it going.
But his NBA honeymoon stage in Oklahoma City — featuring big wins, lifelong friends and a permanent nickname — still holds a place in his heart.
“I actually talked to Kevin (Durant) last night,” Harden said. “He called me and he’s still in shock. Like I said, it happened so fast. I think he was at a football game when he found out and I think he said he stopped watching the game he was so upset. But it’s a business – it happens that way. We built something special there – it didn’t work out. You’ve got to move on. We’re still going to be brothers but it’s a new journey.”
“It’s definitely sad (to say goodbye) but like I said it’s a new journey for me, a new growth for me to move into something special,” he continued. “Being one of the focal points of this offense, it’s a great opportunity. Great organization, front office, great young guys, great chemistry and willing to work. So like I said, I’m excited, very excited to be here.”