NBA Preview: With Harden, Rockets reborn

James Harden was a heck of a No. 3 option. Now, the Houston Rockets get to find out how he does as No. 1.

The Rockets spent the offseason compiling pieces, parts and draft picks, seemingly without much reason or rhyme. It was as if they were merely stockpiling assets and crossing their fingers, hoping that someone would eventually take the bait as they searched for a go-to guy.

As the season approached, it appeared that plan had become stuck in the mud — and the Rockets would be forced to play with the hand they dealt themselves.

That wasn’t such a bad thing. It was not as ideal as the original plan.

Then, just a less than a week before the start of the season, Harden was unexpectedly put on the market by Oklahoma City. Finally, the Rockets could put their gatherings to use.

And that they did, sending veteran guard Kevin Martin and lottery pick Jeremy Lamb (and picks) to the Thunder for Harden, the NBA’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year. Harden is coming off a season in which he played for a team that won the West and reached the Finals. But after talks involving a contract extension stalled, the Thunder decided to part ways.

In Houston, Harden will get his way (via a large contract), and the ball (via his less-illustrious teammates). The money and the opportunities are now his to live up to.

Either way, the acquisition of Harden is considered so major it’s easy to forget about some of the Rockets’ many other moves. That includes the acquisitions of point guard Jeremy Lin, who was possibly the best player in the league for about three weeks last year with New York, and center Omer Asik, a backup in Chicago who’s expected to be the main man in the middle in Houston.

Also in are the likes of veteran swingman Carlos Delfino, rookie forwards and first-round picks Terrence Jones and Royce White, as well as rookie center Donatas Motiejunas.

But now, it all starts and ends with a man who’s getting his first chance to be the top gun. And we’re all about to find out if Harden is up to the task.

Last season: 34-32, did not make playoffs.

Coach: Kevin McHale (fourth year, 73-87)

Top returnees: PF Patrick Patterson, SF Chandler Parsons, PF Marcus Morris.

Key additions: SG James Harden, PG Jeremy Lin, C Omer Asik, SG/SF Carlos Delfino, F Terrence Jones-r, F Royce White-r, C Donatas Motiejunas.

X-Factor: Harden. It’d be hard to pick anyone else here. He is, after all, the new face of the franchise. On the bright side, he’s a young and proven commodity, a guy who looked capable of leading team while playing next to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in OKC. Harden won’t have that type of star power next to him here, though. How he handles the assignment, again, will be everything.

Strengths: Besides Harden, most everything’s a mystery. Lin had a really good three weeks or so last year as a member of the Knicks, then he injured his knee and did the unthinkable — pulling a disappearing act in the league’s largest market. Other plusses include Asik’s hustle, Delfino’s intangibles and Patterson’s continued progress. Other than that, any sort of prediction about consistency and proven ability would be a bit of a reach.

Weaknesses: Folks like Jones, Motiejunas and White, all rookies, will likely be expected to contribute immediately. That’s three first-year guys on a team with no established leader. It’s not necessarily a reason for all-out panic, but it does mean the Rockets must proceed with caution (and patience). Also, this team’s best chance will be to get out and run, aiming to score before opposing defenses set their feet. But where’s the shot-blocking big man to get the break started?

Outlook: It’s hard to predict anything here, simply because this gang of strangers has zero history together. Will Harden truly be viable every night scoring leader? Will Lin be the player he was before the knee injury? Will Asik be worth the small country the Rockets seemingly paid to land him? Mostly, will McHale find a way to sort through the madness and make sense of it all? If a couple of those answers are yes, well, the Rockets may have something here.

Prediction: 36-46.

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