Two seasons ago, he was the Houston Rockets’ starting center. All six feet and six inches of him. After Yao Ming was forced into early retirement due to numerous foot injuries, the Rockets struggled to find a formidable replacement for him. In 2011, the Rockets offered lucrative contracts to both Marc Gasol and Nene Hilario, but both centers re-signed with their respective teams. The year before, the Rockets tried to sign the Orlando Magic’s backup center, Marcin Gortat. Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey showed up at his doorstep at midnight and presented him with emails from Rockets fans sent to an email address created specifically for him–email@example.com.
Ultimately, the offer was matched by the Magic and he re-signed.
Times were tough if you were a Rockets fan. Your best player was Kevin Martin, your team seemed to have the 14th pick in the NBA Draft every year and you had every under-sized power forward in the league on your roster. The team was stuck in purgatory and it felt like the cycle would never end.
Upon finding out that Magic center, Dwight Howard, the best in the NBA, was unhappy and had asked to be traded, the Rockets shifted their focus to trading for him, even though Howard’s camp told the Rockets he wasn’t the least bit interested in playing for them. After over a year of trying to land Howard in a trade, the Rockets fell short and he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Rockets, again, had swung and missed on a big man. Botched liftoffs became the way of the Rockets.
Last summer, the Rockets offered Chicago Bulls’ back-up center, Omer Asik, a three-year, $25 million deal that the Bulls could not match and they finally had a serviceable center they could call their own. He joined a roster full of middle-of-the-road talents like Martin, Jeremy Lin, Patrick Patterson–the list goes on.
Then, the unexpected happened. The Rockets traded for James Harden. One third of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Big 3, Harden was the 2012 Sixth Man of the Year for the Western Conference champs. The Thunder didn’t offer him the max contract he wanted, so they shipped him to Houston for Martin and other pieces. The Rockets signed Harden to a max contract–five years, $80 million–and finally the Rockets had a superstar on their roster again. Harden’s first season with the team went much better than expected: He averaged 26 PPG, 6 APG, and 5 RPG, while leading them to the playoffs when most experts had them finishing at the bottom of the conference before the season started. But his biggest contribution to the team was yet to come.
Harden’s addition to the Rockets made them an exciting, marketable team on the rise and with their youth and potential, made them an attractive landing spot for many big-named free agents this summer.
Re-enter Howard. After a lackluster season with the Lakers, Howard was a free agent, and for the first time in his life, he got to choose who to play for. Thanks in large part to Harden’s presence, Howard chose the Rockets.
Again, the best center in National Basketball Association chose to play for the Rockets. It’s something most H-Town fans still can’t believe. From the Martin-Hayes ticket in 2011 to a one-two punch of Harden-Howard only two years later. Completely surreal.
Morey and the Rockets aren’t done transforming this roster by any means, but the centerpieces are clearly in place and the future is bright in Clutch City. That last sentence was weird to write.