Regardless of whether there was any consensus about them making the 2013 NBA Playoffs, the Houston Rockets' trade for James Harden on the cusp of the regular season's opener was probably one of the biggest stories of the season.
It catapulted Houston from being merely a rebuilding team into a team that you had to at least discuss as a playoff contender. And now as the surprising Golden State Warriors head into Houston to embark upon a four game road trip, the Rockets find themselves right in the thick of things as they currently sit at eighth in the Western Conference and just five games back of the Warriors.
Adding to the intrigue of the Warriors' meeting with the Rockets tonight is that Houston is starting to hit their stride after a bit of a slump in January.
For some insight on how this team is really starting to come together, the impact of that Harden trade, and the ongoing development of Bay Area native Jeremy Lin, I contacted Patrick Harrel of SB Nation's Houston Rockets blog The Dream Shake with a few questions to get us ready for tonight's game.
Q&A with The Dream Shake.
1. The Rockets come into this game having won 5 of their last 7. What exactly is going well for them right now?
Patrick Harrel: After a recent rough stretch took the wind out of the Rockets sails in January, the Rockets have returned to the transition game, a move that helps the team's offense tremendously (click here for more on that from TDS). The Rockets have been beating their opponents down the floor and getting high percentage shots as a result.
Another thing that's really helped them has been the resurgence of Omer Asik. Asik appeared to have hit "the wall" in January, but has been gobbling up every rebound in sight in recent weeks and seems to have steadied the ship, if you will.
Finally, they're just hitting shots. It's amazing how much better an offense looks if they're simply knocking down outside jumpers.
2. So, obviously the biggest story of the year for the Rockets has been the James Harden trade that started it. Is there anything that has surprised you about his performance so far this season?
PH: When the trade went down, I obviously was thrilled because it gave the Rockets a much clearer path to contention and potentially the top SG of the coming decade, but I did not expect the immediate returns that the Rockets have gotten out of him. He's 5th in the league in scoring, 1st in free throws made and attempted, and still averaging over 5 assists a night. Simply put, he's been spectacular. I thought he could be a player like this, but I wasn't sure it would be this year. After all, he'd been a third option for his first three years in the league.
On top of my underestimation of his talents, I also underestimated his impact on this roster. Even with Harden in the fold, I didn't imagine the Rockets in playoff contention, and now the team is playing well and can beat any team on any given night. The difference from last year to this one is that they're winning way more games down the stretch. That has a lot to do with Mr. Harden.
3. Looking back on that Harden trade considering his performance so far and what you know about the package the Rockets sent OKC would you grade the trade any differently now?
PH: I graded the trade very well then and I'd stay with that assessment now. Kevin Martin is a nice scorer on an expiring contract and he was never going to stick around with the Rockets. Given that the trade scenarios being tossed around were all of the dump salary bunch, using him as one of the prime pieces to land Harden is a coup.
Jeremy Lamb is a decent prospect with a silky jumper and sweet athleticism, but I can't say I ever fell for the whole package. He has a future as a scoring guard off the bench, but I can't see the Rockets losing any sleep over him.
There were three draft picks in the trade, but the only one of note was the Toronto first rounder. When that pick had a chance to be a top 5 pick, I got nervous, but now that Kyle Lowry is healthy and they brought in Rudy Gay, I am not sweating giving up that pick right now.
The bottom line is that the Rockets were a team without a superstar, the most important part of a team in basketball. I would've given up every player on the roster for Harden because with him under contract for six years, you have a very legitimate chance at putting a championship roster around him. For once, the Rockets have a path to contention, and that's why they get an A.
4. Bay Area native Jeremy Lin was another big offseason signing that was of interest to Warriors fans who have followed his career. But it's pretty clear Linsanity is over now. From what you seen, do you see this as an adjustment period that you expect him to improve from or do you think this is about what we should expect for the remainder of his career?
PH: I don't think it's fair to say that this level of play from Lin is what we can expect. He's had stretches this season where he's seemed to regain a little bit of that spark (38 points against San Antonio back in December), but it's been an up and down year for him.
It appears as though he is still a bit bothered by his knee injury, but when he turns on the jets, he shows off why the Rockets gave him $25 million this summer. It's a thing of beauty, and as he continues to get stronger and more confident as a secondary piece, I have every reason to believe that he will improve.
5. Houston is currently in eighth place, narrowly ahead of Portland & five games behind fifth place Golden State. Where did you expect Houston to finish after the Harden trade & how much ground do you think they can make up between now and playoff time?
PH: When the news dropped that the Rockets had acquired Harden three days before the start of the season, the prospects for the team obviously improved, but I still had them a bit outside the playoff hunt, somewhere in the 10-12 range in the Western Conference. After all, they would be starting a lineup with a collective 96 starts between the five of them (57 of which had come from rookie second round pick Chandler Parsons. They were and are the youngest team in the league, and it seemed like an uphill climb to reach the playoffs.
With that said, I have faith that they will make it into the postseason this year. Portland's close record is a bit of a mirage when you look at their point differential, and the Lakers have a lot of ground to make up to reach the Rockets. When the season ends, I expect that they'll either be in the 7th or 8th seed. Their record-setting 45 point demolition of the Jazz in Utah the other night indicates that they're probably the superior squad (ignoring small sample size, and all...), but anything can happen.
For more on the Rockets, check out SBN's The Dream Shake.