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Grades: Rockets Ink James Harden To Massive Four-Year Extension

The Houston Rockets signed James Harden to the richest contract extension in NBA history, making it clear that he is the face of the franchise.

For the second straight summer, James Harden has cashed in with a long-term extension that solidifies him as the face of the Rockets.

Houston inked Harden, a five-time All-Star guard and the 2017 MVP runner-up, to a four-year extension worth $170 million under the NBA’s new “Supermax provision.” The new deal tacks on to Harden’s current contract, inked last summer, which ran through the end of the 2018-19 season. Harden, 27, is now under contract in Houston through 2022-23, his age-33 season, and will make more than $228 million over the next six years.

"Houston is home for me," Harden said in a prepared statement. "[Owner Leslie] Alexander has shown he is fully committed to winning and my teammates and I are going to keep putting in the work to get better and compete for the title."

When Rockets GM Daryl Morey handed Harden an extension last summer, he was looking to stabilize a franchise that had flamed out in the playoffs after Harden’s pairing with Dwight Howard flamed out. Houston was in the midst of a major transition, hiring new coach Mike D’Antoni, handing out big contracts to Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson and seeking to establish a new style that further emphasized Harden’s unique combination of scoring and playmaking.

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Harden responded with a career year, averaging 29.1 PPG, a league-leading 11.2 APG and 8.1 RPG, and carrying Houston to the West’s No. 3 seed and a trip to the second round. The Rockets finished the season as the NBA’s biggest overachievers relative to preseason expectations, ranked second in offensive efficiency behind the Warriors, and set an NBA record for three-point attempts. Harden was at the center of it all, appearing in 81 games, earning All-NBA First Team honors, and posting a PPG/RPG/APG stat line that hasn’t been matched by any player since Oscar Robertson in 1965.

Taking care of Harden last summer was a key step in Houston’s turnaround on the court, but it has proven to be just as critical when it comes to off-court roster-building. Harden’s presence and Houston’s status as a leading contender played a major role in landing All-Star point guard Chris Paul via trade this summer, and it has positioned the Rockets as a destination for other talent, including All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks, who has been linked to the franchise in recent trade rumors.

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By committing to Harden again this summer, Houston has made clear its identity going forward through his prime—the Rockets are Harden’s team—and posted an “Open for business” sign to all free agents or less-than-satisfied stars who are interested in investigating their Superteam opportunities. Morey’s pitch to possible star targets now includes a history of winning, a major market with a global fanbase and no state income taxes, and a roster with a clear identity and a proven MVP-caliber centerpiece. True franchise players elevate their organizations beyond just the Xs and Os, and Harden has matured enough to fit that bill.

The obvious downside to such a major commitment from the organization’s standpoint is risk of injury or decline. Harden appears to be a safe bet. During his eight-year career, he has appeared in 89% of his team’s games and has never missed 10 or more games in any individual season. Over the last three seasons in Houston, despite a heavy burden and playing time load that saw him lead the league in MPG in 2015-16, he has missed just two games.

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If that good health continues, Harden should be in position to provide star-level contributions for the entirety of this deal. As a point of comparison, LeBron James was in his age-27 season during his second year in Miami. Signing on for six more seasons at that point would have carried him through the 2017-18 season, during which he is still expected to be the game’s top overall talent. In terms of other elite scoring guards, LA’s Kobe Bryant remained a top-flite scorer through his age-34 season, while Miami’s Dwyane Wade averaged 21.5 PPG at age-33 (his first season in Miami following James’s departure) despite a much longer injury history than Harden.

This deal comes at an interesting point in a busy, turbulent time for NBA stars, as some eye teaming up to keep up with the loaded Warriors and others, like Washington’s John Wall and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, weigh cashing out on Supermax deals that might tie them to non-contenders for their primes. Harden’s extension gives him the best of both worlds: insane compensation and a cemented spot right in the middle of the fluctuating superstar arms race.

Grade: A