It's been a very different season for the Houston Rockets. In fact, if you just glance at last season's roster, it's hard to believe you're looking at the same franchise.
The Rockets spent last offseason parting ways with Kyle Lowry, Luis Scola, Samuel Dalembert, Goran Dragic, Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill, Terrence Williams, Jonny Flynn and more. One of the guys in the "and more" category is Kevin Martin, who was dealt to the Thunder as the centerpiece of the James Harden trade.
It was clear the Rockets wanted to go a whole new direction, which was understandable considering they had missed the playoffs three-straight seasons.
Their rebuilding began in the summer when they dumped all those aforementioned players and signed Omer Asik from Chicago and Jeremy Lin from the Knicks. And when the Rockets heard Oklahoma City was making Harden available, they put together a huge package to land a young star they thought could take them to the next level.
Rockets' owner Leslie Alexander declared Harden would make an "instant impact" on the franchise. We don't know how things will work out in the long-term, but at least for this year, his impact helped a .515, ninth-place team turn into a .549, eighth-place team. Technically, improvement. But more like, same neighborhood, different address.
Perhaps the only indisputable "instant impact" Harden really made was on the Rockets' checkbook after Houston signed him to an $80 million extension four days after acquiring him.
One could actually say Harden's impact was bigger for himself than his team. He sent a message right out of the gate, scoring 37 and 45 points, respectively, in his first two games as a Rocket. Those performances alone gave him the national spotlight he couldn't have received as a sixth-man in Oklahoma City. As a full-time starter for the first time in his four-year career, he saw his scoring average rise from 16.8 points per game to 25.9, which in turn vaulted him to his first All-Star appearance.
As far as the trade itself, there's no question it hit Harden with a measurable level of shock. And while he publicly embraced the move, saying all the right things about moving forward and things happening for a reason, his body language indicated otherwise. The truth is, he never wanted to leave the Thunder and likely never thought his hardball negotiations would actually lead to a trade.
But they did. And for the past five months, Harden's life has been pretty darn good. He's enjoyed all the perks and benefits that come with being a star player on an average team.
But now Harden and Houston have a big-time problem.
All the fun and excitement of their new-look roster and their high-octane style of play is about to come to a screeching halt as the Rockets have run into a red-hot and extra-motivated Thunder team in pursuit of another trip to the NBA Finals. OKC took two of three regular-season meetings against Houston with the two wins coming by 30 and 22 points. In addition, the Thunder averaged a whopping 121 points per game against the Rockets' 28th-ranked defense.
James Harden's honeymoon is over, and he's about to experience the one big downside to his new role: complete annihilation at the hands of his former teammates.