James Harden's skepticism toward the Houston Rockets is justified. His best offensive teammate, Russell Westbrook, is now a Washington Wizard, and his best defensive teammate, Robert Covington, is now a Portland Trail Blazer. A second-round thrashing at the hands of the Lakers led Harden to the reasonable conclusion that he needed to play for a better team this season in order to compete with them. Teams that lose their second- and third-best players tend to get worse. So as their replacements prepared for the season, Harden spent the opening portion of training camp angling for a trade away from them.
That request is still very much active, but it hasn't been granted at least in part because of Houston's apparent optimism. The Rockets want to give it one more go with Harden. They believe the roster they've constructed can soften his stance, if not change his mind entirely. The long road to doing so relied on increasing the talent base through somewhat unconventional means. For all of the good Daryl Morey did, he left a bare cupboard.
Lacking the assets to surround Harden with sure things, Houston pivoted into home-run swings on the sort of players less desperate teams could afford to avoid. Christian Wood got three times as many millions of dollars ($42 million) as he has career starts (14). John Wall is coming off of a torn Achilles. That's old news for DeMarcus Cousins, who made a full recovery from that injury only to tear a quad and an ACL.
The risk was calculated. Miss on one and Houston's contention window closes. Miss on all three and the Rockets are praying for ping pong balls. But hit on all three, and the talent gap between Houston and the top of the Western Conference shrinks. The jury is still out on Wood. He sat out the preseason opener, a dominant 125-104 win over the Chicago Bulls, but the early returns on Wall and Cousins are about as encouraging as the Rockets could have asked for. Flashes of Wall's old speed came as quickly as the opening possession.
Cousins got in on the fun as well. He's hardly fleet of foot at this stage, but his effort and awareness were apparent early on as well.
And, yes, the chemistry they developed as Kentucky teammates a decade ago was on display as well.
It's the preseason. Take it with several thousand grains of salt. Neither Wall nor Cousins is their old self physically yet. They might never get back there. But they combined for 27 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds on nearly 65 percent shooting in only 34 minutes. The more impressive numbers came for Houston as a team.
Houston's 3-point identity certainly seemed intact. The 24 3-pointers the Rockets made fell one short of last season's high, but the way those shots came suggests a diversified offense. The Rockets averaged 21.6 assists per game last season. They had 22 through three quarters on Friday, relying on the sort of ball movement and half-court pace that Harden's offenses have eschewed in recent years. Harden's absence enabled that style, but his presence doesn't necessarily destroy it. The coach (Mike D'Antoni) and general manager (Morey) who built it are gone. Harden would have to change for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. He seems decidedly less enthused about doing so for Wall and Cousins.
But it's not as though trade demands have never been defused. Kobe Bryant spent the entire 2007 offseason begging for a deal. He wound up reaching the 2008 NBA Finals as a Laker. Gregg Popovich managed to talk LaMarcus Aldridge into three more seasons (and counting) in San Antonio after his 2017 request. These situations are fluid. A more promising present in Houston might open Harden to the idea of a future there.
That future doesn't have to last forever. It doesn't even have to last this entire season. But Harden's actions over the past several weeks suggested a complete disinterest in ever again playing for the Rockets. Tonight's stellar performance was a step toward changing that, to getting their former MVP to at least give this group a chance. The players who did suit up still hope he's open to the idea.
"Hopefully this game tonight let them know what kind of movement we're in, and what kind of team we could be," Wall said of Harden and Houston's other major absence, P.J. Tucker.
The benefits of that promise extend beyond Houston's on-court prospects. It creates leverage. The more open Harden acts towards remaining in Houston, the more the Rockets can extract from possible trade suitors. The happier he is, the better he plays, and the better he plays, the more valuable he becomes. If nothing else, a better team buys Houston time to negotiate. That is time they didn't seem to have a week ago.
The roster remains flawed. With Covington gone, a below-average defense is imminent. We're one preseason game into a long season. Wall might get hurt again. Cousins' history suggests he probably will. A good chunk of the roster beyond Harden hasn't even taken the floor yet. But if Harden was watching Friday, he saw a roster far more suited to his skill set than he could have expected, one with the shooting to which he has become accustomed along with extra dashes of the ball-handling, passing and raw talent he'd need to make any sort of run in the Western Conference. That might not last. It might not change his mind. But it was the best outcome Houston could have hoped for out of an otherwise meaningless game.