HOUSTON -- The Houston Rockets aren't ready for the offseason. But for as underachieving, disappointing, stunning, embarrassing -- whatever word you want to use -- a season it has been, the offseason is where everything begins for the Rockets.
Houston currently sits outside the playoffs as it prepares to face the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday at the Toyota Center. Even if the Rockets creep into the postseason, meeting Golden State, San Antonio or Oklahoma City probably means a quick exit and the birth of a new offseason of challenges.
That is where James Harden comes in.
The Rockets' best player and leading scorer will become the main recruiter this summer in the franchise's quest to sign Kevin Durant, whom Harden played with for three seasons in Oklahoma City.
Selling points for the Rockets include no state income tax in Texas, ability to team up with one of the league's best scorers in Harden, and a bigger city with more marketing opportunities compared to Oklahoma City.
Durant hasn't given any hints he'll leave the Thunder. But speculation ranges from him playing close to home in Washington, D.C. or Los Angeles, where one Rockets official believes he'll reside if he leaves Oklahoma City and doesn't choose Houston.
The Rockets front office has talked to Harden about recruiting, and Harden is ready to play his part.
"In order to put yourself as an elite team, you always got to have talent, right?" Harden said while not addressing Durant specifically. "You always got to get better and find ways to improve. That's any team."
Harden and Durant have a strong relationship, professionally and personally. In the last meeting between the Rockets and Thunder on March 22, Harden hugged Durant's mother, Wanda Pratt, at midcourt before the game. Harden still has ties to OKC, where he owns a home and his brother has a barber shop in the midtown section of the city.
So will the Rockets have a chance to lure Durant?
Cap space won't be a problem, especially if Dwight Howard leaves as expected. Howard has been frustrated with his lack of touches this season while being pushed from a second option on offense and being regarded more as a defensive presence.
Houston has employed smaller lineups to maximize its quickness, adding another outside shooter. Late in a loss against Chicago on Thursday, Howard seemed unhappy when interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff went with a small lineup.
"I don't think that [size] was the issue," Howard said. "I'm not 7-foot-3, I'm 6-foot-11. I can play inside-out, especially on the defensive end."
Howard, who is expected to become a free agent this summer, still wants to win and be paid like a superstar. He fired longtime agent Dan Fegan and hired Perry Rogers, whom he was attracted to because he'll be Rogers' only basketball client. Howard hopes to sign a max contract with a projected average salary of $30 million per season.
The Rockets wouldn't have a desire to pay him that. Their big money is targeted for Durant.
Several other NBA superstars are in the same shoes as Harden, set to play the role of recruiter.
"Put me at the head of the table and let's go to work," Anthony told reporters earlier this season. "If we want this team to be better, if we want more pieces of this team, I don't have a choice but to go out there and do my job and try to get people to come and for them to see it from my perspective [more] than anybody else's perspective, see it from a player's perspective."
"I'm more of an aggressive recruiter," Terry said. "If I know that we're targeting you, I'm coming right to you. I will get your phone number. I will do whatever it takes. I will talk to you after the game to let you know if you're free and available, we'd love to have you."
Before the Rockets acquired point guard Ty Lawson in a trade with the Denver Nuggets last summer, GM Daryl Morey conferred with Harden and Howard about the potential move. It was important to get Harden to buy in because he was going to relinquish some ballhandling duties to Lawson. And with Lawson coming off two DUI arrests last year, his positive relationship with Harden was a confidence booster for the team that things would go smoothly away from the court.
Lawson never got in trouble away from the floor during his brief stay in Houston, but the experiment on the court with the Rockets failed. His contract was bought out and he eventually signed with Indiana.
Morey thought the move was going to push the Rockets to an elite level, and Harden's blessing just made the deal that much easier.
"I'm trying to win," Harden said. "Whatever it takes for me to put myself in a situation to win, I'm going to do it."
Can the Rockets get Durant?
We won't find out until this summer, but it appears the recruiting process will start soon for Harden.