The unofficial host of the NBA's All-Star weekend in Houston isn't Mayor Annise Parker, league Commissioner David Stern, or even that zany Rockets mascot and Care Bear look-a-like named Clutch.

It's the 23-year-old from Los Angeles with a lumberjack beard and a nasty Euro-step who has been in town for four months — Rockets All-Star shooting guard James Harden. And what a four months it has been.

In the city where Yao Ming's retirement in the summer of 2011 seemed to put basketball on the back burner again, Harden — who was traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Rockets on Oct. 28 and three days later signed a five-year, $80 million maximum contract offer — has revived hope since the day he arrived. He'll be one of seven first-time All-Stars in Sunday's game, but he's much more than that to a team that looks primed to rise.

He's their everything.

"The moves that are very hard to pull off and rarely come available are getting All-Star caliber guys," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told USA TODAY Sports. "To get James in the prime of his career — not even the prime, but at a stage where he's still improving — and have an All-Star at 23, it really meant everything to our plan."

The role of franchise centerpiece is lucrative, but not an easy one to bear. In the case of Harden, it was the sort of promotion that doesn't often happen. The NBA's reigning Sixth Man of the Year, who spent his first three seasons playing in the shadows of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Harden was often described as the next coming of super sub Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs.

Could this old-school talent, this playmaking, shot-taking, runaway train of a scorer make the jump from third option to top dog? Was he worthy of the contract given to him by a Rockets organization that — as evidenced by its unsuccessful pursuit of Dwight Howard before he was traded from the Orlando Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers — badly needed a new star?