James Harden often carried Oklahoma City’s offense for eight-minute stretches last season. He was good at it, too. Good enough to be the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year. Now he has to carry Houston’s offense for 82 games.
And nobody will see it sooner than the Pistons. If their season opener needed any added intrigue, it came Saturday night with the out-of-nowhere trade that shipped Harden to Houston – a team the Pistons not only host in Wednesday’s opener, but play again to wrap up a six-game road trip on Nov. 10.
In fact, half of the Pistons’ first eight games will come against the teams involved in the first blockbuster trade of the NBA season. The Pistons will play the Thunder and Rockets back to back on their season-opening trip, then come home Nov. 12 to host OKC.
The challenge for Lawrence Frank is figuring a game plan based on a Houston lineup he’s never seen play. It figures that Harden will be featured heavily. Rockets coach Kevin McHale gets three full days to get Harden up to speed and tweak his attack to exploit Harden’s multifaceted offensive skills – as a shooter, driver and playmaker off the dribble.
“It’s not a big surprise,” Frank said of how Houston likely will use Harden. “Their points per possessions were one of the top five offensive teams in the league in the preseason. They play very, very up-tempo. They move the ball. Harden will fit right in. Everyone knows the things he does exceptionally well, what makes him a high-level player, so I’m sure they’ll incorporate that in what they do. You just plan on that.”
The price was steep. The Rockets gave up veteran Kevin Martin, whose scoring ability will go a long way to plugging the hole Harden leaves on Oklahoma City’s bench immediately. They also shipped away Jeremy Lamb, who if he hits the high end of his potential could plug that hole in the long term. The Thunder get two first-rounders, as well, one a likely lottery pick coming from Toronto, and Charlotte’s second-rounder, which has a solid shot at being the 31st pick.
The Rockets took back three other players – Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook – but with their roster already overflowing with guaranteed contracts, it’s likely they’ll be waiving at least two of those players.
“I think it’s a win-win for both teams, I really do,” Frank said. “In Houston’s case, they get an elite player, an Olympian, a guy who at his position is one of the best in the league. I assume they’re going to get an (long-term contract) agreement with him. When you look at their core of players – between Harden, (Jeremy) Lin, (Omer) Asik, (Chandler) Parsons and then the draft picks they had, and (Carlos) Delfino’s been a very, very good addition – it’s a win for them.
“And for Oklahoma City, especially when you find out you can’t sign the guy, you get Kevin Martin, an elite offensive player; you get Lamb, who has a very bright upside; you get two first-round picks.”
Frank said again after Sunday’s practice what he voiced after Friday’s win over Atlanta in the preseason finale: He likes the spirit the Pistons have displayed throughout training camp and feels they’re in a much better place than they were a year ago in his first season.
“The key is that with the preseason done, you have to continue to work to get better. It can’t be an exhale, preseason’s over, I got through it. No, this is the start of the process. We’re just on to the next phase. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
And a little extra work for the coaching staff, now, figuring out how the NBA’s first big trade of the season affects the opponent in half of their first eight games.