When I asked Daryl Morey why he called James Harden "a top five halfcourt player," the Houston Rockets general manager didn't hesitate or back down.
"His pick and roll, shooting, passing, driving . . ." Morey said. "He's pretty unguardable."
The man charged with making the Rockets relevant again in a Texans-mad town let these remarks loose a few days before the Rockets' season opener. While you can bet the rest of the NBA is paying a lot more attention to that descriptor now. For only days after having his world turned upside down, going from the third wheel on an NBA championship contender to the new $80 million face of a team that's starting over, Harden looked . . . well, pretty unguardable.
How's this for a debut? Thirty seven points, 12 assists, six rebounds and four steals. There are vampires who don't enjoy Halloween this much.
Harden never got more than 17 shots in any game with Oklahoma City last season. He hoisted up 25 in his Houston debut.
The 23-year-old Harden is a different type of bloodsucker, one who is set to drain something else from Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant, you know that scoring title you've owned for the last three seasons . . . you might want to start preparing to wave it goodbye.
Forget the it's only one game nonsense. Sometimes one game screams plenty. When you've barely practiced with your new team and you still almost drop in 40 . . . well, that's one heck of a war yell.
Harden never got more than 17 shots in any game with Oklahoma City last season. And most of the time, his attempts hovered in the nine to 12 range as Durant and Russell Westbrook dominated the basketball. He hoisted up 25 shots in his Houston debut, including 10 3-pointers, and there is sure to be plenty more where that came from.
The Rockets need Harden to do his best Michael Jordan impression to solidify the future of the franchise and The Beard is more than willing to comply.
It's not even about winning. Though the Rockets did road win on this opening night, running by the Detroit Pistons 105-96 with a terrific fourth quarter.
Don't fool yourself. These Rockets of Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik are not going to be contending for anything as a group this season. No, 2012-13 is about establishing that the Rockets finally have a true star again, "a foundational player" as Morey likes to put it. Harden looks determined to prove that as he contends for a scoring title.
While he does, these Rockets do have the chance to be ferociously entertaining on plenty of nights.
What about Jeremy Lin?
In an opener when Jeremy Lin put up a nice but hardly spectacular stat line (12 points, eight assists, four turnovers and four steals in 35 minutes), the Rockets' new $25 million marketing marvel showed his worth when he had to leave the court. Once Lin went out with foul trouble in the third quarter, the Rockets' offense pretty much fell apart.
It turns out Houston is much better with Lin on the floor, just like the Knicks were much better with Lin on the floor.
An attack that hummed in the first, second and fourth quarters (scoring 27, 28 and 33 points respectively) could only manage 17 in the third.
It turns out Houston is much better with Jeremy Lin on the floor, just like the New York Knicks were much better with Jeremy Lin on the floor. Time will tell more, but Lin actually could be still underrated in terms of game impact.
This season is Harden's show though, his chance to convince an elite free agent of the need to come play with him and Lin in Houston next season. Morey is right when he calls Houston, "a Top 5 NBA city," but that means little when the best basketball players in the world seem to keep ignoring that fact (see Howard, Dwight and Bosh, Chris).
Harden can shift that equation in ways Morey never will be able to do on his own though. In Detroit, Harden got the Rockets' big men plenty of easy baskets when he wasn't shooting.
When a reporter asked Morey in all seriousness after Harden's introductory press conference if the new guy would start on opening night given his scant Rockets practice time, the GM cracked, "Unless, we have a better guy than him."
The Rockets don't have close to a better guy than James Harden. It's starting to look like fewer and fewer other teams do too.
He's not only pretty unguardable. He's fun to watch. Unless maybe you're Durant and you can hear the understudy charging your way.
Two nights into the season, James Harden is the leading scorer in the NBA. Don't be surprised when he's still holding that position on April 17.