by MIKE MELTSER, SportsRadio 610By Mike Meltser

There are few surprises with big NBA stars. We know all the details of their contracts, when they end, and the teams that hope to pursue them in free agency. That’s why, when the Rockets surprisingly announced an extension for James Harden on Saturday, the news seemed to come from out of nowhere. Nobody was discussing a new deal for Harden, who had 2 years remaining on the 5-year max deal he signed back in 2012.

Harden re-upped with a new 4-year deal worth $118M. It’s effectively a 3-year deal, as Harden has a player option before the 2019-20 season. Given that he was already under control through 2018, the Rockets bought themselves an extra year, at the cost of roughly $20M over the next 2 seasons.

I think it’s a good move. The narrative was already emerging over the last few months that this team was on a 2-year window before Harden could leave for “greener pastures,” wherever they may be in 2018. That’s a tight timetable, especially considering the super team that the Warriors have put together in the West. Now, Daryl Morey and company have a broader window of time to build a team that can realistically compete with Golden State, San Antonio, etc. with Harden in the fold for the extra year.

The extra money to Harden could handicap the Rockets for the next few seasons in free agency, despite a rise in the salary cap. They will have a tougher time offering max-level cap space to stars in the open market. My sense is that it was more important, at this stage, for the organization to show an increased commitment from the team’s franchise player. If they can entice a star to sign, the Rockets probably believe they can shift enough contracts to make that happen.

Having been at the news conference, I would agree with many of Brian T. Smith’s thoughts on on Sunday. There was definitely a different vibe from Harden. He’s not always great at some of the subtle aspects of social interaction; holding direct eye contact, speaking assertively, avoiding rolling his eyes. Harden was in control, direct, and assumed responsibility for the team’s (and his own) struggles in 2015-16. It was about as impressive an off-court performance as I’ve seen from James.

I do have to present a thought of caution about the organizational dynamic. To me, the Rockets have been a bit overly defensive over national media criticism over their season. This team was expected to contend for a championship. Instead, they finished 41-41, lost uncompetitively to the Warriors, after firing their head coach just 11 games into the season. That combination of events, specifically the last one, removes any benefit of the doubt for the team. When that type of season occurs, it’s not a surprise that the team will face white-hot criticism.

Les Alexander was particularly defensive when it came to the issue of Harden’s defense (no pun intended). “The guy played 42, 43 minutes a game,” Alexander said. “He had to carry the team offensively…guys couldn’t shoot the ball many times, okay. He was it. Then they expected him to go and chase guys all over the court…there’s only so much a human being can do….You should see him after a game, how tired he was.”

I actually agree with many of those thoughts, but worry about this message coming from the team’s owner. Is it possible that Harden can do no wrong, in the eyes of Alexander? That’s a concern for me. If it’s the case, then it’s hard for a GM, or more importantly a coach, to draw a line with a team’s star player. While not an exact analogy, it’s notable that Pat Riley drew a tougher line in the sand with LeBron James in Miami than what the game’s best player was used to back in Cleveland (before his eventual return). There is a common feeling that LeBron learned the lessons of a championship organization with the Heat, and initially struggled to transport them to the Cavaliers.

Harden is a tremendous player. He is an offensive force that can produce a top 10 NBA offense basically by himself. He is a wonderful, underrated passer that creates a vast amount of opportunities for his teammates. That, in itself, is enough to win around 45-50 games and make the playoffs every season, even in the West.

However, winning the NBA title will require way more. The organization, and Mike D’Antoni, will need to demand more from Harden on the defensive end of the floor. He will need to transform into a better leader and more stabilizing force in the locker room. At one point Saturday, Alexander alluded to the fact that the 15-16 Rockets sometimes played like they didn’t like each other, at all. That can’t happen moving forward. Harden has been handed the keys to the franchise. Saturday was a good step for him, and now the Rockets have secured their franchise player through 2019.

Other notes from the news conference:

  • Not to say anything negatively about Eric Gordon, but I was very impressed by the outward confidence displayed by Ryan Anderson. He seemed to be very at ease, confident, and eager to play alongside Harden. You could tell that after years of trade speculation, Anderson was almost relieved to finally be in Houston.
  • Morey mentioned that the Rockets’ medical staff did close examinations on the medical histories of both Gordon and Anderson, two players who have struggled to stay on the court for full seasons. The team believes that their injuries are more of the “fluke” variety, as opposed to chronic ailments.
  • Morey clearly believes that Gordon will be a better fit next to Harden than Ty Lawson was this past season. Gordon needs the ball less than Lawson, and he’s a considerably better shooter.
  • The Rockets were not allowed to publicly comment about the reports of them signing Nene, as the final details need to be approved by the league office.

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