Originally written on NESN.com  |  Last updated 10/29/12
Houston is a really big place. Perhaps sports fans already knew that, but it would be understandable if they had forgotten. The Astros stink. The Texans were mostly irrelevant until a year ago. The Rockets are on a three-year playoff drought. Even Case Keenum finally graduated from UH. At times like this, struggling sports cities often get saddled with the "small-market" moniker, regardless of their actual population. Miami was labeled a "small market" until LeBron James and Chris Bosh's arrivals magically transformed the city into a "big market" in the minds of fans. The Golden State Warriors play in the U.S.'s sixth-largest media market but are generally considered small-market fodder, owing to their .365 win percentage over the last four years. So it made sense that when news of the James Harden trade came down this weekend, the bulk of the analysis focused on the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder's tumble from Western Conference favorite to a mere contender was shocking and, in the immediate future, raised the most questions about not just this year's West race but also the continuing economic realities for true small-market franchises, even under the new collective bargaining agreement. The impact on the Rockets may be less obvious -- and less intriguing -- right now. Instead of being lottery-bound, they should be in playoff contention, if only to be first-round sacrificial lambs to the likes of the Thunder, Lakers or Spurs. Still, the Rockets concluded an active offseason in which they not only made themselves better, they avoided the payroll constraints that typically accompany such moves. Houston, remember, is really big. The greater Houston area represents the 10th-largest media market in the U.S., with more than two million in the city proper, making it the fourth-largest city in the country. Of those two million, a considerable number are basketball fans thanks to the Rockets' glory days in the 1980s and '90s, as well as the Cougars' Phi Slamma Jamma days from '82-84. Harden is not coming to some rinky-dink operation that could have served as the setting for Deliverance. The Rockets have not been good, but they have an analytical front office that is ahead of its time and an ownership that has not been reluctant about paying large (but fair) salaries on the likes of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. Were the Thunder not run so expertly themselves, Houston would have a far brighter long-term forecast than Oklahoma City. The Rockets therefore are decidedly "big-market" with $150 million in revenue and almost $18 million in operating income in 2012, according to Forbes, and they planned to lock up Harden to a maximum contract extension of either four or five years by early evening on Monday. They are able to do so because general manager Daryl Morey revamped the roster in the offseason, adding Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik to deals that could turn out to be highly team-friendly if both players continue to blossom. The Rockets might not be done adding players, either, as they are still well below the luxury tax line and are on target to remain so for at least the next three years. Keep in mind, that the Rockets hotly pursued Dwight Howard and the ample salary that would have come with him -- they are not intent on keeping down costs simply for the sake of saving money. From a basketball standpoint, the Rockets could not have found a more perfect player for their needs. Kevin McHale runs an uptempo system that is ideal for Lin, who figures to get a similar statistical bump to the ones Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic enjoyed in Houston. The problem offensively would have come in the halfcourt, but now the Rockets will be in the capable pick-and-roll hands of Harden. With Harden assuming the ballhandling duties, Lin should get more open looks and Chandler Parsons should be good for two or three dunks a game. When Harden is on the court with rookie Royce White, the Rockets could have one of the niftiest non-point guard passing tandems in the NBA. Asik is not the shot-blocker Serge Ibaka is or the bruiser Kendrick Perkins is, but he will help protect Harden on defense if he can stay out of foul trouble. The Thunder took a very real step back in the short term by dealing Harden -- even though, from a financial standpoint, the move made sense -- but the Rockets managed to improve both now and for the foreseeable future, and they now have a true star to build around. Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.
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