Is it too soon for James Harden to ask for a raise?
Just hours after he signed that five-year deal in the $80 million ballpark with the Rockets, it looked like Harden was ready for a bigger ballpark.
Not to make too much of one game, but Harden’s 37-point, 12-assist, six-rebound performance was the basketball equivalent to a defibrillator — sending a needed jolt of electricity to the heart of a moribund Rockets franchise.
It was the first time in NBA history that a player scored as many as 30 points and dealt 12 assists in his first game with a new team. And what made it all the more impressive was the way Harden made it all look as easy as growing a beard in the 105-96 win over the Pistons.
What did Harden do? Anything he wanted. He slashed and drove to the basket. He pulled up and knocked down a quartet of 3-point shots. He fed his big men in the post and he fired bullet passes to cutting teammates.
Harden was everything the Rockets had hoped he would be and everything that had been missing since the unfulfilling Yao Ming-Tracy McGrady Era went over the falls in a broken barrel.
In 44 splendid minutes, he became not only the face of the franchise, but the stylish tonsorial symbol of rebirth.
While general manager Daryl Morey had been shuffling and reshuffling the deck for the past three years, what he could never seem to deal himself was an ace.
What Harden gives the Rockets is confidence. The kind that comes from possessing the talent that gets you chosen with the No. 3 pick in the draft. The kind that is forged in 47 games of playoff experience over three postseason runs in Oklahoma City.
From the opening minutes when he went straight to the hole, fearlessly pulled the trigger on jumpers and played like the leader he was brought in to be, Harden was able to fade the heat on his scrutinized backcourt partner Jeremy Lin and pulled the rest of the youngest roster in the league over all the bumps and pitfalls. Now somebody’s just got to figure out a way to hang a giant beard on the outside of the Toyota Center.
It was the kind of stuff that Harden had flashed before while playing the shadows of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the kind of beard-on-fire game the Thunder might yearn for sometime in the playoffs next spring.
It was only a start, of course, but of the eye-popping kind that should get the Rockets back onto the NBA radar and that, in turn, could attract the attention of a future free agent who just might want to come and play with him. After all, the Rockets will still have max dollars available under the salary cap to offer next summer.
That is, if they don’t give Harden that raise.