x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

James Harden cements his place

Young star is adapting quickly to the Rockets and has left Thunder wondering, writes Steve Dilbeck.

Traded away to Houston, James Harden, right, and Jeremy Lin have formed a formidable pairing for the Rockets. Allen Einstein / Getty Images
Traded away to Houston, James Harden, right, and Jeremy Lin have formed a formidable pairing for the Rockets. Allen Einstein / Getty Images

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden were set to chase championships for years to come. Three young stars, all under 25, had already reached the NBA finals. They had the makings of a dynasty.

Suddenly, it was no more. In a stunning trade on the eve of the new season, the Oklahoma City Thunder sent Harden to the Houston Rockets in a deal that rocked the Western Conference.

Teams just do not trade rising stars like Harden. Not when a franchise and a city is excited and filled with anticipation.

The trade was motivated by money. Harden wanted the maximum contract allowed by NBA rules, and since the small-market Thunder had already given maximum contracts to Durant and Westbrook, they chose not to invest nearly the whole of their payroll on three players.

When Harden, 23, turned down an offer of US$55 million (Dh202m), team officials felt they had to trade him. They at least spared fans the prolonged drama that preceded the trades of Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard.

Now two teams have been reshaped. Harden was an All-Star and the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year last season, as well as a member of Team USA's Olympic gold-medal team.

His impact on the Rockets has been immediate. After quickly signing a maximum, $80m, five-year deal with Houston, he scored 37 points and had 12 assists in his first game, a 105-96 victory over the Detroit Pistons.

"All the talking and all the craziness that has been happening this last week - I just wanted to go out there and play basketball," Harden said after that game.

In his second game, Harden scored 45 in a victory over the Atlanta Hawks.

Having had no practice time with the Rockets after the trade, some reality set in when the Rockets lost their third game in overtime to the Portland Trail Blazers, despite 24 from Harden.

"We don't have a feel for each other," he said. "We're just out there using our natural instincts. More practices and more games, and we should get better."

With Harden paired in the back court with fellow Rockets newcomer Jeremy Lin, Houston are a play-offs contender. Harden also gets out from under the shadow of Durant and Westbrook.

And the Thunder? They still expect to be a title threat, but notions of their dominating the West for years to come have been tempered. They had three of the 20-best players in the NBA; now they have two.

Having two top players is no guarantee of a title. Jerry West and Elgin Baylor with the old Lakers could vouch for that.

The Thunder's refusal to pay the price of star No 3 could haunt them for years.