Can you build the foundation for a championship basketball team on a beard? The Houston Rockets are hoping that it is possible, as long as the beard is so thick that it is un-shave-able, and the man it belongs too has talent so slick that it is undeniable.
Enter James Harden.
Since being acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder last weekend, Harden has made quite an impression on Rockets fans. First, Harden recorded a 37 point-12 rebound double-double in his first game as a Rocket, a season-opening win over the Detroit Pistons. If that wasn’t enough, he followed that debut with a dominating 45 point game against the Atlanta Hawks, another win.
However, the scoring is just a fraction of the impact that Harden has made on the Rockets. For a team who was picked by multiple media outlets to finish at the very bottom of the Western Conference, if not the entire NBA, Harden has brought excitement that many thought would take years to rebuild in Houston.
Before Harden’s arrival, ‘No Shave November’ was merely a month filled with awkward mustaches and itchy half-beards. Now though, with the addition of Harden to a relatively-hairless bunch of faces, the month-long holiday has gotten more publicity in Houston than ever before. ‘No Shave November’ is no longer just a way for men to prove who is the manliest by comparing their facial hair (we all lose by the way, Harden is definitely the manliest), it is now a city-wide, month-long holiday to honor Harden and the rebirth that he has brought to the city of Houston.
“Fear The Beard” was already a well-known catchphrase while Harden played for Thunder, and Houston was well aware of just how easily the beard could burn a team (both figuratively and literally, Harden could definitely carpet burn somebody if he went face to face with them). By teaming up with Harden however, the Rockets don’t have to fear the beard. They can use their energy to cheer the beard, revere the beard, and make sure that a razor never gets near the beard.
Enough of the beard. Although to be honest, Houston cannot get enough of the beard right now.
Critics around the league were not quiet in their condemnation of the trade from the Rockets’ standpoint. Analysts said that the Rockets gave up too much (Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, (2) first-round picks, and a second-rounder), in return for a sixth-man with the beard of six men and a haul of three other players named Cole, Lazar, and Daequan.
To be honest, it seemed odd to me at first why the Rockets were getting so much negative feedback for the deal. While Harden was a member of the Thunder, analysts raved about his scoring ability, offensive intelligence, and energy on defense and the boards. When the Rockets traded for him however, those same analysts critiqued Harden’s sub-par defense, lack of assists, and inability to score without playmakers on the court around him. In the matter of 48 hours, Harden had somehow gone from one of the most exciting players in the league (on the Thunder), to a one-dimensional, seemingly overrated player (on the Rockets).
The reasoning behind these negative reactions is up for debate. It could be that the mainstream media doesn’t want to pile compliments on a Rockets team that lacks any other media darlings (Sorry Jeremy Lin, your time is up for now), or it could be that they are upset at Houston for breaking up the Thunder’s trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Harden. Or perhaps everyone really does believe that Harden doesn’t have the potential to be a star player, and that fact was easy to hide as third fiddle for the Thunder. If the first two games of Harden’s career as a Rocket are any indication though, the potential is definitely there, it is just up to the Rockets to build around it.
One thing that you haven’t heard from Rockets fans, even in their uncensored celebrations over the past week, is any reference to a championship this season. Rockets fans know that Harden is an amazing acquisition for them, but if they really want to compete they will need another star to pair with Harden. Despite giving a max-extension to Harden this week, the Rockets will still have enough money to go out and give another one this offseason, and that is where the excitement around the team stems from.
The team was already extremely young before they acquired Harden for Martin, and that youth is evident when you watch the Rockets play (even if most of that youth; Royce White, Terrence Jones, and Donatas Motiejūnas) is stuck in timeout on the bench and hasn’t seen a single minute this year. This was supposed to be a developmental year, with the team working with their young talent in order to see who could be an impact player when the team’s blueprint is completed. The acquisition of Harden is just slightly speeding up that development. Now Jeremy Lin actually has a dependable scorer to pass to on his “run around for 12 seconds and dish it off” plays, and Omer Asik has somebody to kick it back out to after an offensive rebound (and missed layup, followed by another offensive rebound).
To all the analysts around the league who criticized the move by the Rockets, stating that Harden can’t single-handedly lead a team to victory: you might want to re-watch the Rockets first two games of the season. Harden dominated the majority of both games, and looked to be the only person on the court who could score at times. While that definitely isn’t what the Rockets want every night, it proves that Harden has no problem stepping into the role that the Rockets want him to fill.
As I mentioned earlier, the season is very young and it is way too early to label the trade a gigantic success for the Rockets. That being said, it was a trade that the team needed to make. Before the season began, the only time the Rockets came up in conversation was either in draft lottery talks, or discussions of how much the team overpaid for Lin and Asik. Now though, the team has a bonafide number-one option, a go-to scorer, and a player who can fill the seats, and the stat sheets (and the sink with his hair, if he ever decides to shave).
The Rockets made a high-risk move for an impact player, and it will take some time to see whether or not it pays off. I believe that they made the right move by extending him for 5 more years though. When next summer rolls around, Rockets fans won’t be stuck in limbo wondering if Harden will be back for another year, instead the only real question will be whether or not his beard can survive Houston’s summer heat.