James Harden trade gives Houston Rockets a path to contention

Robert Mayer-US PRESSWIRE

Daryl Morey finally acquired a young star player, and things are looking up in Houston. A look at why it was a move that Morey absolutely had to make.

With James Harden now in the fold, Daryl Morey may have finally made his signature move that Rockets fans have been begging for ever since Yao went down against the Lakers in the 2009 playoffs. After turning this roster upside down in an attempt to put together a treasure chest of toys to trade away, Morey's famed "assets" paid off, and the Rockets now have a 23 year old shooting guard coming off an NBA Finals appearance and a gold medal showing in the Olympics.

Some have told Rockets fans to tap the brakes on the excitement, that Harden is a nice player but not one worthy of a max contract. There are legitimate fears about regression, especially coming off the remarkable shooting season Harden just had, but to say that Harden is anything but a max player in the NBA landscape today would be ridiculous. Let's delve deeper to see exactly why Harden is so valuable.

Looking at Harden, it's not difficult to see the kind of player that statistically inclined Daryl Morey fell in love with. With his ridiculous efficiency, Arturo Galletti of Wage of Wins fame recently claimed that Harden was more important to the Thunder than Kevin Durant. Obviously, this is not the prevailing sentiment, but to be mentioned in that league is a pretty exceptional compliment in its own right.

If you haven't gathered this already, this deal looks like an absolute no-brainer.

In it, the Rockets give the Thunder five pieces: a pair of first round picks, one from Dallas and one from Toronto, the latter a likely lottery pick and the former top-20 protected until 2017, a second round pick from Charlotte, Kevin Martin, and Jeremy Lamb.

Of the draft picks, the Toronto selection is the only one with serious value. As a likely lottery pick, the asset has a lot of upside, but at the same time, that potential is about as predictable as Javale McGee's performances. Just as the pick might become an All-Star, the failings of Marcus Morris, the Rockets' latest lottery pick, show you just how much of a crap shoot the draft is.

On the player side of things, Kevin Martin was a nice asset, a solid swingman that would score a lot for a mediocre Rockets team but move on at the end of the year. The only opportunity cost to trading him was the inability to use his contract in future deals.

On the other hand, losing the young and rangy Jeremy Lamb hurt. Lamb, with his shooting touch and crazy athleticism, had potential that you could dream on.

This idea of potential is one fans of rebuilding teams absolutely adore. The Toronto pick could be a top five selection, Jeremy Lamb might blossom into a 15-20 points per game scorer just like Hasheem Thabeet, Terrence Williams, Jordan Hill, and Jonny Flynn could have made the leap to be big time contributors. With a rough season, the Rockets could have a pair of top lottery selections to pick players that might become all-stars.

The problem with that logic is why go through all the pain of a horrific season just for the chance of finding a player in the draft who could play up to Harden's level when you can simply acquire him right now? The allure of potential is all-powerful, but logic dictates that you get your hands on an all-star as quickly as you can and then hold onto him. When that all-star is 23 years old, it's all the better.

In Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, the Rockets had a pair of solid players that could develop into above average starters and start to build the makings of a core. The difference between the two of them and Harden is not only that Harden is more than above average, but rather, more importantly, he's an all-star caliber player whose peers recognize as one of the best.

Asik and Lin are not going to be attracting any free agents in the next few years, but having Harden for presumably the next six years could do the job. Not only is he talent-wise in a different stratosphere than Asik and Lin, he has been in the brotherhood of Team USA, where the best Americans in the world join together in an elite basketball fraternity to bond, pick up women, and occasionally trounce other teams in the game they play so well.

If you remember correctly, LeBron, Wade, and Bosh all famously played together in 2008, and, depending on who you ask, may or may not have made a pact to all go to the same city when they became free agents in 2010. Obviously it's unlikely that Harden made any such pacts, but regardless, Team USA is still where stars get to know each other best and having Harden on that team certainly does not hurt with recruiting.

And for those who question how Harden will thrive without feeding off of Durant and Westbrook for looks, take a look at NBA.com's metrics on how he fared with and without Durant and Westbrook in the lineup.

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If those stats don't make Harden look the part of a superstar, I don't know what it would take. Daryl Morey says that the Rockets have studied Harden extensively and don't foresee his transition to being a first option being a problem, and these stats seem to back him up.

With two above average starters in place, a young up-and-comer at small forward, and max cap room next summer, the Rockets have put themselves in perfect position to surround James Harden with a championship roster. If Daryl Morey can parlay his $7 million in existing cap space into another star, even better, but if not, the Rockets still have a path to contention for the first time in years. For now, sit back and enjoy the ride. It's going to be fun.

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