From his seat in the lower bowl of the Palace of Auburn Hills on Wednesday night, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey looked on, giddily. Just hours earlier, Morey had finalized a five-year, $78.6 million deal with James Harden, the man the Rockets surrendered Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and two first-round picks for; the man Morey hoped would be a cornerstone player in Houston for years to come. As Morey watched Harden torch the Pistons for 37 points, 12 assists and six rebounds, his phone hummed with text messages from equally thrilled members of the organization.
"Everyone was excited," Morey said in a telephone interview with SI.com. "It looked like we found a player we can build around."
The pursuit of a franchise player has been the top priority for Morey and the Rockets, and everyone in the league knew it. Dwight Howard? We want him. Chris Bosh? Name your price. Pau Gasol? Him, too. In searching for a star to fill the void left by Yao Ming, Morey wasn't shy. "Some teams are quiet and wait for inbound calls," Morey said. "We let teams know what we like."
No one liked what Morey was offering, however, and as the 2012-13 season inched closer, the Rockets appeared on the brink of certain disaster. Houston's roster was built to trade, not play; the team had several rookie first-rounders on the roster, four if you include 2011 lottery pick Donatas Motiejunas, who spent last season in Europe. The core of last year's team was gone, either by amnesty (Luis Scola), free agency (Goran Dragic) or trade (Kyle Lowry, Chase Budinger), purged in the name of cap space and draft picks.
Remarked one scout who watched the Rockets play in the preseason, "They don't have any idea what kind of team they want to be."
Still, Harden wasn't on Houston's radar. Not recently, anyway. Over the last two years Morey had inquired about Harden from time to time, only to be rebuffed. He had touched base with Oklahoma City over the summer, knowing that the small-market Thunder could be forced to make a financially motivated decision about one of its stars. In September, Morey and Thunder GM Sam Presti discussed the loose parameters of a Harden trade, though even then Morey was skeptical any deal would get done.
Then negotiations between Harden and the Thunder fell apart, Presti called and suddenly, Morey had his man.
Some have questioned the wisdom of handing Harden a max deal, of committing such a big chunk of payroll to a player with seven starts, zero All-Star appearances and a career 12.8 point-per-game average on his résumé. Yanked from the cocoon in Oklahoma City, where Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook bore the brunt of the responsibility, would Harden mature into a similar player?
"I've seen how hard those guys work," Harden told the Houston Chronicle, referring to stars like Durant. "Obviously, my talent level is there. I just really didn't get an opportunity to show it at all times. Here, I do. I just have to show it."
Morey admits predicting Harden's future is uncertain. "There are some risks when you try to forecast that type of guy," Morey said. But Harden's game was so appealing. Morey saw a player who thrived in the pick-and-roll, who could pass and shoot, who performed when Durant and Westbrook were on the floor and when they were not. He saw a player who would mesh with Omer Asik, the hard-screening center who will be clearing a path for Harden for years to come. And he saw a complement to Jeremy Lin, a player who could relieve Lin of some of his ball-handling responsibilities and attack the rim with him in the halfcourt. The gutting of the roster left the Rockets with a glaring need for a scorer, and Harden fills the bill.
The Rockets aren't a playoff team even with Harden. Not with the Timberwolves rising in the Western Conference and Utah and Dallas still in the mix. They clearly need much more. But as Morey continues to rebuild the post-Yao roster, he believes Harden's presence will help recruit more talent. Morey's sales pitch to free agents last summer was that Houston has been the most successful All-Star-less team in the league -- "Maybe in NBA history," Morey said -- and now, with max cap space to play with this offseason, they have a potential superstar in the fold.
"To win the title, you need to have multiple guys like Harden," Morey said. "Before, we had zero. The most important thing now is to get another foundation player. We have a lot of young players who could take a step forward [but] we are a step away from being a contender. We need to just keep being aggressive."
Armed still with young assets and draft picks, the Rockets have the ability to do just that. Here comes Houston, once down, now on the rise again.