Rockets general manager Daryl Morey officially introduced Harden on Monday, calling him a "foundational" player for the team's ultimate goal of returning to title contention. Harden, last season's Sixth Man of the Year, joined Houston in a stunning trade with Oklahoma City on Saturday night.
"James Harden is a player we can build around, and continue to improve the team around his skills," Morey said. "He's an elite offensive player, a complete player. He can pass, shoot, attack the basket. Even though he's a gold medalist, an Olympian and made the Finals, I still think he's an underrated player. He's absolutely someone who, when they see him step into the role of a star for the Houston Rockets, people are going to realize just how good he is."
Coupled with Jeremy Lin, Morey is hoping that Houston's new high-profile backcourt and the salary cap space created by the deal will attract another star to Houston in the near future.
The Rockets have overhauled their roster since finishing 34-32 last season and missing the playoffs for the third straight year. Houston added Lin and center Omer Asik to join Chandler Parsons and Patrick Patterson in the projected starting lineup.
"Now our job is to add another significant player or have one of our young guys develop into an All-Star-caliber player," Morey said. "You probably need two to really be a championship contender. We're not there yet, but we've got multiple young players who can take that step forward."
Harden was finalizing a long-term contract with Houston on Monday. He says he'll be ready to play when the Rockets open the regular season in Detroit on Wednesday.
"I'm excited to be here," Harden said. "The organization has done a great job, they've made me feel welcome. I think we have something special here. We're young, but those guys want to work and get better, so we want things days at a time."
Not long after news of the trade leaked out, Harden heard from Thunder stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who were also his teammates on the Olympic team. The Rockets visit Oklahoma City on Nov. 28.
"I actually talked to Kevin (Sunday) night. He's still in shock," Harden said. "It's a business, it happens that way. We had something special there. It didn't work out. In a business, you've got to move on. We're still going to be brothers."
Morey acknowledged he was "shocked" that Harden was available, and said the deal came together within a few days last week. The Rockets have been trying to land a first-tier star for years, failing in an aggressive bid to sign Dwight Howard over the summer.
The Rockets were close to getting Pau Gasol before last season in a proposed deal that also would have sent All-Star guard Chris Paul to the Lakers. But NBA commissioner David Stern, acting on behalf of the league-owned New Orleans Hornets, vetoed the deal that would have brought Lamar Odom to the Hornets, along with Luis Scola, Martin, Goran Dragic and a first-round pick.
"A GM in 1950 would say to win the title, you've got to have an All-Star player," Morey said. "We feel like we have one now, and frankly, we want more than one. But you've got to get one first, and we're going to move forward from there."
Harden says he'll wear the same No. 13 in Houston that he wore in Oklahoma City.
"It's a new journey for me," Harden said. "It's a new growth for me, to do something special, being one of the focal points of this offense. It's a great opportunity."
Morey expects Harden to start Houston's regular-season opener, a decision ultimately up to coach Kevin McHale. Harden said he's ready to play, even though he was practicing with his new team for the first time on Monday afternoon.
"I mesh with anyone," Harden said. "It shouldn't take that much time, especially with our offense and our strategies aren't too difficult. I'm a very fast learner, so it shouldn't take too long."
Later Monday, the Rockets waived forwards Jon Brockman and JaJuan Johnson, guards Gary Forbes and Shaun Livingston and guard/forward Lazar Hayward, who was acquired along with Harden from Oklahoma City.
McHale and Morey said before training camp began that the objective this season was making the playoffs. That remains the same, although with Harden on board, it seems much more reachable.
"We're going to be much better this year, and we've upped our playoff odds," Morey said. "Our goal isn't to stop there. We're looking to be a championship contender, and that's going to require focusing on the future, at least a little bit longer."
Harden started only seven games in three seasons in Oklahoma City, as he developed into an indispensable reserve. Morey, like McHale, expects Harden to make a seamless transition into a featured role with the Rockets.
"He's had plenty of minutes and we've studied him, believe me," Morey said. "I don't see it as an issue at all."