If you have been following the NBA at all, you would have been aware that sometime during the July 4th weekend festivities last week, Daryl Morey pulled off a move that no one except Rockets fans expected him to. I’m talking, of course, about the Dwight Howard free agent signing. After being spurned by free agents (Chris Bosh) and the NBA (Pau Gasol), Morey was finally able to make a career-defining move. Or, at least, that’s what popular media claimed.
As a Rockets fan, though, it’s obvious how short-sighted that narrative is. Morey’s genius is in his ability to continually tinker until the pieces fall into place. Some might call it lucky, and it definitely plays a part, but I think it is about doing whatever you can to increase the probability of the outcome that you desire. Which, in this case, was getting a championship contender together.
Before we even reach Dwight Howard, we need to take a look at what is lovingly known as “Moreyball” over the last few seasons. Once it was apparent that Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming would lead to nothing more than jersey sales and a cornering of the Chinese market, Morey went to work. It is hard to imagine that the Rockets’ best player after McGrady went down and Yao was here and there was Trevor Ariza, or maybe Ron Artest. After that curtailed playoff run in 2009 where Yao went down for the penultimate time, it was obvious that we had to rebuild. But not in the way most NBA teams approached it: tank and go fishing in the lottery. Morey had to remain competitive.
The one thing that defines Daryl Morey as a GM more than anything else is his ability to treat players like financial assets. This is a blessing and a curse. It is great because he is able to extract maximum value from his roster moves but it is a curse because players don’t like being treated like lines on a balance sheet. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the laundry list of the last few players to be through the revolving door of the Rockets roster who were disposed of at their peak value: Tracy McGrady, Trevor Ariza, Kevin Martin, Aaron Brooks, Carl Landry, Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, Patrick Patterson, Luis Scola, Chase Budinger.
All these players were household names and starters when they were playing for the Rockets. T-mac was a shell of his former self but his was the trade that brought Kevin Martin into town and Kevin Martin was the player that brought James Harden to the red uniform. Ariza was dumped to the Hornets for something or another, where he has been languishing as a very expensive and inefficient defensive sharpshooter. Kevin Martin peaked as a Rocket, showed his lack of big-game play in the playoffs for OKC and now has gone running back into the arms of Rick Adelman.
Aaron Brooks was traded away post-injury for some valuable assets where he elected to play the lockout-shortened season in China. He is a free agent still looking for a team as we speak. Carl Landry was traded away to the wasteland that is Sacramento. Luckily, he managed to get to Golden State and has now signed a shiny new contract and is performing at levels near where he was with the Rockets. Lowry was traded to Toronto for a lottery pick and hasn’t come close to the success he enjoyed in a Rocket uniform. Dragic decided to test the free market and Phoenix bit but is now regretting it. Patterson, Budinger and Scola were great in Houston but have not managed to recreate their success in other surroundings.
In addition to all these big names coming and going, there have been a host of tiny little roster changes that are just blips on the radar for most “professional” analysts. When the Rockets traded for James Harden, everyone was surprised that it happened because no one expected James Harden to be a financial asset. Luckily for Houston, both Sam Presti and Daryl Morey were on the same page. Harden was going to become a free agent in another season and instead of having to deal with a Dwight Howard-like nightmare situation in Orlando, Presti elected to sell high. And despite what people might say, he got a pretty decent package. Kevin Martin was an able contributor in the regular season, Jeremy Lamb is now showing flashes of brilliance, Hasheem Thabeet has played meaningful minutes and Stephen Adams looks like he can become a solid role player. The players OKC lost apart from Harden aren’t in an NBA rotation right now.
The trade worked out for both teams. Presti realized his assets were going to tank because he wouldn’t be able to afford them in 2 seasons and the rest of the league would know that. Houston realized that their assets, particularly their futures, were worth cashing in to move into contender mode. Because once a big-name player comes into a city, others want to join (see McGrady and Artest).
A lot of people claim that Morey took a huge risk in drafting Harden because there was no idea he knew that Harden was going to put up top-5 SG numbers after being promoted from the bench to the starting lineup. It is easy to use hindsight, but I feel like all these naysayers didn’t watch any OKC series in the 2011-12 NBA playoffs until the finals. James Harden was an absolute stud and played an enormous part in them even getting to the finals. Yeah, he choked there, but the fact that people blamed him for the Thunder losing in 2012 is even more of a testament to how awesome he is.
It could have all gone horribly wrong if Harden did not make the transition to top dog well so it was absolutely a gamble on Morey’s part. But the gamble was like getting pocket aces in a game of Texas Hold’em. Yeah, you might lose, but there’s a high probability of winning the pot. Getting Harden was absolutely a safe bet, in my opinion. In fact, I think Morey may have overpaid by including both Lamb and a lottery pick. However, it was probably the overpayment that allowed the deal to get done without news of Harden being on the trading block hitting the rest of the GMs.
There was more luck at play as well. No one expected Chandler Parsons to strike gold. That was a case of low risk, high payoff. Not even Daryl Morey expected to get Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin in restricted free agency despite the poison pill contract. Especially in the case of Asik, where all the analytics pointed to a strong likelihood that he would be one of the top defensive players the league has seen. And the biggest piece of luck was obviously chemistry. Chemistry is officially a type of science but in the NBA, it is anything but.
Team chemistry is unpredictable and there are many examples. See the first third of the big 3 era in Miami. I believe that team went something like 18-16 and people began to question Riley’s vision. They’ve now been to three successive NBA finals and won twice. See the New York Knicks, who despite being full of successful players still struggle in the playoffs because of lack of cohesion. Most recently and topically, see the Los Angeles Lakers of last year, whose big 4 needed a healthy dose of zebra help to even make it to the playoffs where they were dumped in 4 straight games by a San Antonio Spurs team that has been together for seemingly forever.
Good team chemistry is hard to get which is why teams should strive to protect it. The Spurs have worked with a strong core (and a great coaching staff) for over a decade now, subbing pieces where it makes sense. They’ve not brought in a huge name from outside because they don’t want to disturb the equilibrium that already exists. I thought Dallas did the exact opposite thing when they disassembled their 2011 championship core. Now, the money may not have worked out and the Dallas GM probably realized that his assets had peaked so it may have been a good decision. I mean, if we see the rest of that championship roster, they’re languishing at the end of the bench somewhere. But they fit together perfectly in Dallas. I think Cuban should have ridden that train a little longer.
This brings me to Miami. A lot of people think the Wade-Bosh-James trio is going to break up in 2014 when that class hits free agency. And I don’t know if it will but I think Riley should be working his ass off to keep it together. Age and fading athleticism is not a problem—Parker, Ginobili and Duncan are well into their 30’s. They just need to make sure the big changes are happening at the role player level and not the star level. They’ve got to ride that chemistry all the way to dynasty level.
Anyhow, I’ve now gone off topic quite a bit so let me bring this back to Houston. Unfortunately, according to my theory, Houston is probably going to struggle this year, at least at the beginning. But Rockets fans will recall that the beginning of the Harden-era was fraught with problems. The rest of the team seemed anxious on offense and always deferred to Harden, resulting in a fair bit of hero ball. Once Harden began trusting his teammates, the Rockets took off (excuse the pun) and the chemistry became maximized.
I think Howard replacing Asik in the starting lineup will have a huge negative effect on chemistry. I won’t be surprised if this team, now expected to do so much, wavers around the .500 mark for the first third or so of the season. The Heat did it too. I think we have a better path, though, because we only have one person thrust into a new role—Asik. Harden was an able facilitator in Oklahoma City and I think his usage was above optimal levels last season. In contrast, the Heat had to deal with three players having to adjust—Wade became the second scorer and Bosh was essentially a glorified role player. LeBron’s adjustment was easier, if only because his teammates were now able playmakers and he could trust them. But it still took him about 35 games to gain that trust.
It definitely helps that Howard is already chummy with the Rockets, especially Chandler Parsons who has apparently had a friendship with Howard since his Orlando days. Dwight Howard chose to go to Houston, so you expect the chemistry to increase quicker, unlike his days in LA, where he was traded. I don’t know about others, but I cannot imagine Howard calling up Kobe, Pau and Nash to go hang out at a club as soon as he was traded. Those players are from a completely different generation.
Bringing this back to Miami, all of their big three were from the same draft class and already buddy-buddy. They had been through the same sort of challenges in their drafted teams—being the most talented player on a mostly crappy team. I think their ability to empathize helped them, which is why that I’m optimistic that the Rockets will gel if the fans and the media give them an opportunity to. Of course, I’m not optimistic that the media will adhere to this agreement as they probably already have a target aimed at the Toyota Center, but I’m hoping that the roster gets through it together. It’s obvious that they already believe in each other in a quietly confident sort of way.
To wrap up, this is going to be another exciting season of Rockets basketball. I think the playoff experience last year made this team even better, regardless of the Howard addition. I think the Howard addition will have some teething pains but I’m hopeful that that will clear up quickly. More than anything, I think these guys will just flat out have a lot of fun on the court and play some exciting basketball. The only regret I have is the diminishing role of Omer Asik and the likelihood of his impending trade. However, he’s hardly the first casualty of Moreyball. Here’s hoping to the health of the roster and a great season!