Taking A Leap Of Faith, As Depicted By James Harden & Daryl Morey


Change comes about in two ways. Either it's forced upon you, or you force it.

In the NBA this season, there've been a host of changes, as there are every year. The NBA is a makeover league. One predicated on who can look the prettiest, who can make the biggest splash, who can outdo the next person since we are dealing with a team sport marketed by individuals (which has helped spawn it into a multibillion-dollar, international conglomerate). More than any other league in American sports, the NBA is a dick-measuring contest. So yeah, changes are fruitful and occasionally prosperous.

Maybe more than any team in basketball, change has become the calling card for the Houston Rockets. It's been forced upon them, and they forced it. And it's made them better as a result. Hear me out.

Think back to Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals. Four things stand out.

1. We all kind of saw this game coming. Despite Russell Westbrook's all-world performance in Game 4, the Thunder still came up short in what has become known as The Cramp Game for LeBron. He nailed the biggest three of his career, was carried off the floor like Paul Pierce in Game 1 of the 2008 Finals (Bron was actually in pain, Pierce just needed to take a piss and didn't want to waste a timeout) and helped Miami hold off OKC to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. From there, the stars aligned, LeBron put years of demons to rest and before we knew it, Dan Gilbert's 2010 Comic Sans jihad became the single funniest "what an idiot" moment in recent memory.

2.  Ironic as it is, everyone was blaming James Harden for OKC's failure on the biggest stage. Don't get it twisted, Harden appeared lost and helpless at times (OK a lot), but pinpointing The Beard as the primary reason will never sit right. This signaled the first time in recorded history a team's third best player played scapegoat. OKC lost because of poor late-game execution, not because Harden was hanging on to dear life guarding LeBron on defense and was a deer in the headlights on offense.

3. It was the most entertaining five-game, delayed sweep in Finals history. This is what we were going to see for the next three to five seasons in some variation. (And still may, to be quite honest.)

4. That last image of Harden with his arms around Westbrook and Durant was inspiring. Only until it wasn't anymore.

Harden's summer wasn't all bad. He was a contributing member to the 2012 Men's Olympic Basketball team, which walked and danced away with the gold medal. Then preparation for the season began, and questions loomed as to whether or not The Beard's time in Oklahoma City was nearing an end or simply a contract extension away from middle America paradise. As is the case with any movement in pro sports these days, stories circulated that Harden vehemently wanted to remain with OKC, while others reported he rejected a four-year extension and sought a max deal.

I'll go to my grave believing Harden wanted to stay with Russell and Kevin, and why not? His only "crime" was wanting to get paid what he thought he was owed. Here are three of league's best perimeter players all on the same team. AND THEY LOVED PLAYING TOGETHER. It's as if Oklahoma City not only hit the talent lottery with all three, they hit the jackpot on the karma lottery. Yet, when it came down to keeping James or Serge Ibaka, the decision laid in OKC's hands thus presenting Harden with inevitable change he had no control over. The small-market mantra will forever play a significant role into whether you think OKC really wanted to keep Harden from jump street. A moot point now because what became Harden's change he had no control over ironically became Daryl Morey's change he'd force himself.

Morey - by all accounts a good guy and a GM with a crazy competitive streak - made the trade for Harden in news that rocked the NBA world. OKC parted ways with a third of their identity. Houston had just taken a "gamble" on a guy who went from having the luxury of touting two superstars cover his deficiencies to now being the primary scoring option in Houston, a role none of us knew whether or not he'd openly accept. "Gamble" is in quotation marks off the strength it wasn't like Morey parted ways with a franchise cornerstone for an over-the-hill star grasping on the last bit of prime he has left. Harden is 23 and hadn't even touched his prime years yet, and the biggest piece Morley gave up was a serviceable but far from a #1 threat in Kevin Martin.

Anywho, Harden's role as HNIC was questioned until he dropped 37-6-12-4 on Detroit opening night. Then 45-7-2 the next night in Atlanta. Then as the weeks dribbled by, we began to see what Thunder fans always knew in the back of their minds. James Harden is good. James Harden can be the best two guard in basketball given time in the role. We just broke up a team with possibly three of the best 12 players on the planet all because we didn't want to pay the guy. To OKC's credit though, it's not like they've slipped horribly. Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka have all seen their numbers increase, and they're still one of four or five teams with legit title expectations. Houston isn't. Yet.


You know when something is different. When a situation doesn't have the same glue or innocence it once had. When Dr. Dre left Death Row in the spring of 1996, the label was still on top of the musical landscape headlined by Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. Snoop had recently beat a murder case earlier that year while Pac was legitimately on par as the most controversial and popular rapper in America with his All Eyez On Me album flying off shelves quicker than stores could restock them. Dre's absence wasn't missed initially with lingering doubts questioning what his defection from Death Row meant for his career moving forward.

What ended up happening? Dre found moderate success in the form of Chronic 2001, Eminem, 50 Cent and his own line of headphones, which ensure his kids' kids' kids will eat comfortably. Tupac became a bigger star highlighted by bad publicity and even bigger album sales. Pac was murdered months later in September while Snoop left Death Row the following year. Suge went to jail stemming from his role in the brawl he and Pac had with Orlando Anderson in the lobby of a Las Vegas casino only hours before bullets filled Shakur's chest cavity. And boom. Just like that, the most feared and promising label was left in ruins off a string of bad decisions and karma.

This isn't to say OKC will crumble in the manner Death Row did because they won't. It's a loose comparison at best. Their championship window is still open. Sam Presti isn't Suge. Russy isn't Tupac, despite their live wire tendencies. And KD isn't Snoop, despite their tall, lanky frame and laid-back demeanor. But Harden's role with OKC was somewhat like Dre's in the fact he helped bring everything together, making sure stars remained stars, notoriety came in droves and was comfortable not having to be the face of the franchise (as long as his money was right). The fall of Death Row is also a cautionary tale of how quickly "what is and what could be" can translate into "what was."


Change. Harden had it forced upon him. Morey forced it. In no greater example was it proven than on Wednesday night in Houston. Harden delivered his finest game of the season thus far going for 46 points, eight rebounds and six assists on 14-19 FG, 7-8 from distance and 11-12 from the line in a 122-119 win against the team he came within three victories of being called "world champion" with. On the surface, it only ensured the Rockets wouldn't get swept by OKC and helped fend off a Lakers team desperate to make the playoffs for at least one night.

Beyond the surface, it was statement win in many ways. For Harden, the league's fifth leading scorer, the win was proof he's going to be fine in his new role. As a basketball fan, we're probably all going to look back and say "remember when" when we're discussing the Thunder teams who seemed destined to become the first AAU team to win an NBA title. The win wasn't closure, but it was comfort.

For Daryl Morey, it was evidence his vision is coming together. Who would've thought the Rockets would have the two biggest trades of the NBA season? Let this marinate, too. Morey's been so hellbent on building a contender in Texas that none of the 11 players who played in the 2011-2012 season opener are on the roster anymore. Jeremy Lin is proving he can be a starting point guard in this league. And even if "Linsanity" was a flash in the pan, he does have something to offer aside from marketing opportunities. Omer Asik is the surprise signing of the year. Chandler Parsons is the smoothest white guy with a basketball in his hands since Jackie Moon and Jason "White Chocolate" Williams before him. The arrival of Thomas Robinson - the fifth pick in last year's draft - should only mean Houston is getting stronger, younger and more financially flexible. Ready to vote Morey GM of the year yet? I thought so.

Houston still has its issues on defense, but Mary Mother of Pearls, if the defense can ever be half as good as the league's highest scoring offense, think about what Morey and head coach Kevin McHale have in Houston. The pieces are there. The money is there to possibly go after Josh Smith or Dwight Howard this summer if they decide to. We missed the boat on a Tracy McGrady/Yao Ming dynasty because of injuries. Harden, Morey and company won't win a title this year. The playoffs are even still waiting on a verdict. Next season? And the one after that? And the one after that? Something's brewing in H-Town.

For OKC, a time will come this postseason when Durant and Russy long for a Harden bailout run or kick-out jumper. Maybe Durant morphs into Rucker Park mode and it doesn't matter. Maybe the playoff lights become too bright for Kevin Martin, and he can't create his own shot in the manner his predecessor did (highly possible). The answer is up in the air at this point. Much like the Western Conference could be if Houston plays their cards right and luck continues to swing in their direction. How ironic and intriguing would a Harden/maybe Smith or D12 vs. Westbrook and Durant vs. CP3 and Blake royal rumble out West look for the next five to seven years? Awesome. That's what.

Father Time and maybe some high-ranking TV executive are the only people aware of what the future has in store. Myself, all I know is poetic justice is best left placed in a song. Sometimes, though, there's no better place for flawed irony than on a basketball court.

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