The summer of 2013 was a triumphant moment for the Houston Rockets and general manager Daryl Morey. After several seasons of relatively minor deals for increasingly valuable players and assets, Morey managed to nab star guard James Harden when the Oklahoma City Thunder faced a difficult decision regarding the luxury tax. Harden became an All-Star, the Rockets made the playoffs, and the team appeared on the way up. That allowed them to convince top free agent Dwight Howard to join them in July, and suddenly the Rockets have a shot to win an NBA title. It certainly appears as if Morey's plan worked.
However, as Howard learned last season with the Los Angeles Lakers, building an impressive team is not the same as actually accomplishing something. The Rockets still have to win a lot of games on the court to be considered a success, and they'll have some things to figure out in order to do so. One of those situations involves whether Howard and incumbent starting center Omer Asik can play together. While head coach Kevin McHale plans on doing so — which our Kelly Dwyer supports fully — it's unclear exactly how the Rockets will keep both players happy and play at their desired fast tempo. Something has to give.
It appears that the answer may come from a familiar source. Because Morey says the Rockets are not yet a finished product. From Brian Windhorst for ESPN.com:
The next move that Morey makes might end up playing a big role in just how far the Rockets are going this season. Specifically, they have a valuable trade chip in center Omer Asik, and what they end up doing with him could alter the balance of power in the Western Conference this season.
The Rockets currently aspire to secure a top-four seed so they can get home-court advantage in the first round, and that's realistic. But with an aggressive franchise runner such as Morey and their Asik bullet, the possibilities are wide-ranging.
"We're not all the way there, we're not a finished team," Morey said. "We're going to be experimenting. We want to be a great team by mid-April."
The first experiment seems to be more formal than anything. Coach Kevin McHale intends to be play the 7-foot Asik and the 6-9 (by his admission) Howard together for stretches.
"If it works really well, it'll be a lot. If it looks like crap, it won't be much," McHale said of how much he'll play his two true centers. "We're going to find out and we're going to give it every opportunity to work."
It's important to clarify that neither Morey nor McHale is suggesting that a trade is imminent. When they say that there's work to be done, they mean that the team still needs to jell, figure out what they're good out, how to leverage that ability, and how to continue to build upon that solid understanding. They're a work-in-progress because any team with major new parts undergoes the same tests.
Yet it's telling that McHale says that the Rockets will give the Howard/Asik situation "every opportunity to work," because that point of view allows for the possibility that all those opportunities won't in fact yield a positive outcome. In other words, they're keeping in mind that Morey may need to turn the Rockets into a great team by trading a key player (presumably Asik) for a more useful one, most likely a dependable starting power forward.
This would be a smart move under the circumstances, obviously, and if the hypothetical trade were to turn out well then Morey should be commended for it. But the mere fact that Morey trading a starter for another useful player seems a formality, should it be necessary, points to a potential issue for the Rockets down the road. Throughout his tenure as GM, Morey has proven an extreme willingness to improve the team by any means he deemed necessary. The flip side of that, though, is that he's also never really let a core group of players work together for a protracted period of time. (It's worth noting that this hasn't always been due to Morey — the Rockets dealt with significant injuries with a very good 2007-08 team that nevertheless performed well in the playoffs.) If the Rockets do become the great team Morey and his colleagues believe they can become, will he be able to let the team remain mostly intact?
We can't predict the answer to that question, naturally, and if forced to bet I'd guess that Morey will know which players to keep and which to dangle in deals. But it remains the case that he's in a somewhat new situation as an executive. As Joe Dumars and others have proven, turning a good team into a title contender and rebuilding a team require different kinds of skills. Morey has already succeeded, no matter what happens, but the next season will tell us a great deal about him that we don't already know.