James Harden, Rockets make the right move

Suppose your boss offered you a hefty raise tomorrow that would take effect starting next July. Good news, right? I’d say so. Now suppose you knew you could earn an extra 11 percent to do the same job at the same place if you waited until July to actually sign on the dotted line.

Would you take the offer now, or wait it out?

Now, what if you also knew you could secure an additional year of guaranteed employment from another company at an annual rate 18 percent higher than your boss’ original offer? Would you make the jump? What if I told you that raise and the extra year amounted to $26 million?

Can you see James Harden’s dilemma?

Harden, the Houston Rockets’ new star shooting guard, has caught unending flak from spurned fans who labeled him a traitor for turning down a supporting role in Oklahoma City for a significantly more lucrative opportunity to be a star in the Lone Star State this week. But from a financial standpoint, it’s hard to come up with a reason for him to have said no.

On Sunday, after balking at a four-year, $54 million extension from Thunder GM Sam Presti — one that would have kept him from earning $60 million (and likely returning to Oklahoma City) as a restricted free agent next summer — Harden found himself dealt to Houston. On Wednesday, he and the Rockets agreed to a five-year, $80 million extension.

It’s easy to be an armchair millionaire and say that you would have given the Thunder a hometown discount. After all, once you’re rich, the $2.5 million annual difference between what Harden was offered by Oklahoma City and what he got from Houston is negligible, right? It’s also easy to say that a realistic shot at a championship — something Harden had in Oklahoma City, but may not ever have in Houston — is worth the difference between the contracts.

But until you’ve looked $26 million — or, for that matter, $6 million — square in the eye and turned it down, you’re simply not qualified to make that evaluation. Leaving Oklahoma City was the obvious choice for the 23-year-old budding superstar to make, and the only real question isn’t whether Harden should have followed the money, but rather, whether he was worth the investment for his new team.

That’s certainly up for debate, but you can hardly blame Rockets GM Daryl Morey for jumping at the opportunity.

After Sunday’s trade, which brought Harden, Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook to Houston in exchange for 2012 lottery pick Jeremy Lamb, expiring contract Kevin Martin, a top-four protected first-rounder from Toronto, a top-20 protected first-rounder from Dallas and a second-rounder from Charlotte, Morey referred to Harden as the “foundational player” that Houston has been searching for since the Yao Ming-Tracy McGrady days came to a disappointing end.

And after three years of adeptly playing the role of trusty sidekick in Oklahoma City, Harden has certainly earned that designation and opportunity.

If nothing else, there’s little doubt that Harden can score like a franchise player, and to think that he could lead the league in scoring during his first season in Houston is not far-fetched. His 37-point, 12-assist debut for the Rockets on Wednesday in a victory over Detroit may be a sign of things to come.

A career 12.7-per-game scorer, Harden flourished in the past when given the opportunity to be Oklahoma City’s No. 1 option on offense.

Last season, Harden played 73 percent of his minutes alongside scoring champ Kevin Durant, and still averaged 14.9 points per 36 minutes with Durant on the floor. But in the 526 minutes Harden played with Durant on the bench, he averaged 31.2 points per 36 minutes and got to the foul line nearly three times as often.

Harden’s numbers while playing with and without point guard Russell Westbrook also point to the same conclusion. Harden scored 29.0 points per 36 minutes in 715 minutes without Westbrook on the floor last season and 13.7 in 1,231 minutes with him.

Harden is extremely athletic and a gifted shooter who can score and score easily, and do it out of a number of sets. With the Thunder, he operated largely as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations, doing so on about one-third of Oklahoma City’s plays, and that won’t change in Houston, where he’ll work with fellow newcomer Omer Asik.

That said, Harden will see fewer opportunities as a spot-up shooter in Houston after operating in that role 14 percent of the time in OKC, according to Synergy Sports Technology numbers, and he’ll likely work more in isolation sets, which he only had to do 12.7 percent of the time last season, scoring on just under half of those plays.

As long as Harden continues to improve his shooting stroke while getting to the basket when the occasion calls for it, he’ll adapt just fine and his star will shine brighter in his new role as a primary ball-handler. In addition to Harden’s talent, it also can’t be overstated how ugly the Rockets’ situation was before trading for Harden.

Before Morey made the deal, the face of the Houston franchise was Jeremy Lin, who made a huge impact over a tiny sample size for New York last season before injuring his knee, but is a relative unknown heading into this season. With Harden, Houston now has a proven star who can take some of the pressure off Lin and do so while completing a backcourt that, if nothing else, is among the league’s most marketable.

And it’s worth noting that, even with Harden on the books, the Rockets will have the cap space to be active in the free-agent market next off-season and could have space to sign one or more quality players to round out the roster.

In the end, though, it’ll come down to whether Harden is worth the superstar money he’s being paid, and for my money — which is hardly James Harden money — I’d say yes.

Some fans’ most recent impressions of Harden may be of his disappointing performance in last year’s Finals, particularly in losses in games 3 and 4, when he averaged 8.5 points on 20-percent shooting. Others may put unnecessary stock in his 6-of-20 shooting from 3-point range during an Olympic gold-medal run in which he only played nine minutes per game.

But the growth Harden showed over the course of last season shouldn’t be overshadowed by a few lackluster performances. Harden is a bona fide star and will only continue to grow as a player, as a leader and as a brand as his role expands.

The Thunder are going to miss Harden this year, and the Rockets will be immeasurably better with him on their team — even if it cost them $80 million that Harden would have been foolish to turn down.

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.