Perhaps sports fans already knew that, but it would be
understandable if they had forgotten. The Astros stink. The Texans were mostly irrelevant
until a year ago. The Rockets are on a three-year playoff drought. Even Case
Keenum finally graduated from UH.
At times like this, struggling sports cities often get
saddled with the "small-market" moniker, regardless of their actual
population. Miami was labeled a "small market" until LeBron James and
Chris Bosh's arrivals magically transformed the city into a "big
market" in the minds of fans. The Golden State Warriors play in the U.S.'s
sixth-largest media market but are generally considered small-market fodder,
owing to their .365 win percentage over the last four years.
So it made sense that when news of the James Harden trade came down this
weekend, the bulk of the analysis focused on the Oklahoma City
Thunder. The Thunder's tumble from Western Conference favorite to a mere
contender was shocking and, in the immediate future, raised the most questions about
not just this year's West race but also the continuing economic realities for
true small-market franchises, even under the new collective bargaining
The impact on the Rockets may be less obvious — and less intriguing — right now.
Instead of being lottery-bound, they should be in playoff contention, if only
to be first-round sacrificial lambs to the likes of the Thunder, Lakers or
Spurs. Still, the Rockets concluded an active offseason in which they not only
made themselves better, but they also avoided the payroll constraints that typically
accompany such moves.
Houston, remember, is really big. The greater Houston area
represents the 10th-largest media market in the U.S., with more than two million
in the city proper, making it the fourth-largest city in the country. Of those two million, a considerable number are basketball fans thanks to the Rockets'
glory days in the 1980s and '90s, as well as the Cougars' Phi Slamma Jamma days
Harden is not coming to some rinky-dink operation that could
have served as the setting for Deliverance. The Rockets have not been good, but
they have an analytical front office that is ahead of its time and an ownership
that has not been reluctant about paying large (but fair) salaries to the
likes of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. Were the Thunder not run so expertly
themselves, Houston would have a far brighter long-term forecast than Oklahoma
The Rockets therefore are decidedly "big-market" with $150
million in revenue and almost $18 million in operating income in 2012,
according to Forbes, and they planned to lock up Harden to a maximum contract
extension of either four or five years by early evening on Monday. They are
able to do so because general manager Daryl Morey revamped the roster in the
offseason, adding Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik to deals that could turn out to be
highly team-friendly if both players continue to blossom.
The Rockets might not
be done adding players, either, as they are still well below the luxury tax
line and are on target to remain so for at least the next three years. Keep in
mind, that the Rockets hotly pursued Dwight Howard and the ample salary
that would have come with him — they are not intent on keeping down costs
simply for the sake of saving money.
From a basketball standpoint, the Rockets could not have
found a more perfect player for their needs. Kevin McHale runs an uptempo system that is ideal
for Lin, who figures to get a similar statistical bump to the ones Kyle Lowry
and Goran Dragic enjoyed in Houston. The problem offensively would have come in
the halfcourt, but now the Rockets will be in the capable pick-and-roll hands of
With Harden assuming the ballhandling duties, Lin should get
more open looks and Chandler Parsons should be good for two or three dunks a game.
When Harden is on the court with rookie Royce White, the Rockets could have one
of the niftiest non-point guard passing tandems in the NBA. Asik is not the
shot-blocker Serge Ibaka is or the bruiser Kendrick Perkins is, but he will
help protect Harden on defense if he can stay out of foul trouble.
The Thunder took a very real step back in the short term by
dealing Harden — even though, from a financial standpoint, the move made sense
– but the Rockets managed to improve both now and for the foreseeable future, and
they now have a true star to build around.