Venue: The Palace of Auburn Hills
When the Houston Rockets and Detroit Pistons kick off their seasons in Detroit, the Rockets will take the floor with a new star acquired just four days earlier.
James Harden makes his Rockets debut Wednesday night after a trade few - if anyone - saw coming.
After Oklahoma City was unable to agree to a long-term extension with the NBA's reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Houston shipped Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-rounder to the Thunder on Saturday in exchange for Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward.
Harden, who was reportedly finalizing a long-term deal with Houston on Monday, instantly becomes the foundation of a team that boasts 11 players with no more than two years of NBA experience.
It's a major change of scenery for a 23-year-old who already has 43 playoff games under his belt. The Rockets went 34-32 last season, missing out on the postseason for the third straight year.
"This is definitely different," said Harden, who averaged 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists in the regular season but struggled in the Thunder's NBA finals loss to Miami. "But it's something that we have to learn to deal with. This is a business and everything happens for a reason. I'm going to just to play hard, try to play hard and do whatever it takes to win."
Harden's arrival adds another layer to a backcourt that featured another offseason coup with the signing of restricted free agent point guard Jeremy Lin.
It's the second stop in Houston for Lin, who was cut by the Rockets on Christmas before captivating New York with his play for the Knicks. Lin averaged 18.2 points and 7.6 assists in 25 starts for the Knicks, but how Lin functions as a starter in a full season remains to be seen.
Last year's lockout seemed to have an especially adverse effect on the young Pistons, who started 4-20 before going .500 for the remainder of the season to finish 25-41.
"I love the direction we're heading," coach Lawrence Frank said. "This at times is going to be a tugboat. It may not be a speedboat in terms of progress.
"It's not going to be a quick-fix approach."
One player on a quick rise to stardom is third-year center Greg Monroe. The face-up big man led Detroit in points (15.4) and rebounds (9.7) while also adding 2.3 assists per game last season.
But even with Monroe's ascension and the team's improvement from February on, the Pistons finished 10 games out of the East's final playoff spot and their roster still includes seven players entering their first or second year.
One of those is Andre Drummond, the No. 9 selection and one of the most polarizing prospects in June's draft. The 7-0, 279-pound center is considered extremely raw after turning 19 in August, but averaged 9.0 points and 5.9 rebounds in just 16.5 minutes per game in the preseason.
He also averaged 1.4 blocks and should be able to instantly improve Detroit's interior defense.
The Pistons freed some $15 million in future savings with the acquisition of Corey Maggette, who's in the final year of his contract. Detroit received the 14th-year forward from Charlotte in exchange for Ben Gordon - who has two years and $25.6 million left on his deal - and a future first-round pick.
With such a bevy of inexperience that also includes youngsters Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton, and Kyle Singler, it's difficult to say just how much better the Pistons can be in Frank's second season at the helm.
"I've never, ever made a prediction, even with teams that went as far as the finals," Frank said. "To me, it's all about the process. It's about literally, every single day, making sure we're adding a brick to that foundation, and then the results will take care of themselves."
Houston won the only meeting last season, 97-80, but the Pistons have won 12 of their last 15 against the Rockets in Detroit.
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