COMMENTARY | On October 26, 2012, Daryl Morey didn't look like the genius he does today.
Today, even the old writers are cozying up (kind of) to advanced stats like true shooting percentage and effective field-goal percentage. But on October 26 of last year, no one really cared.
Up to that point, Morey had constantly tweaked a Houston Rockets team that never really improved, as the franchise was coming off three consecutive seasons of narrowly missing the playoffs. In that time, Morey shifted the franchise away from the days of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming and placed it firmly in the tight grip of mediocrity.
After the particularly painful 2011-12 season, Houston put all its eggs in the free agency basket but came away empty-handed. The Rockets essentially traded Samuel Dalembert to move up two spots in the draft (and to dump the $7 million he was owed) and then lost Goran Dragic to the Phoenix Suns in free agency. After that, it only got worse.
Once Dragic signed with Phoenix, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Houston was going to move forward with Kyle Lowry as its starting floor general, but then it traded him to the Toronto Raptors for a first-round pick. A few days later, it amnestied Luis Scola. Five days later, the New York Knicks announced they wouldn't match Jeremy Lin's $25 million offer sheet. Two days after that, Morey decided to trade Courtney Lee to the Boston Celtics for a collection of stiffs and then to top it all off, Houston spent another $25 million on Omer Asik, who had averaged a whopping 3.1 points and 5.3 rebounds a game for the Chicago Bulls the year before.
So, to wrap all that up, in the summer of 2012 the Rockets lost both their point guards, amnestied their best big man, dumped their starting center's contract, drafted two solid prospects and one head case, and signed two unproven players to deals that, at the time, seemed too be a little too expensive for a couple of fringe starters. Oh, and Houston also traded Marcus Camby for Toney Douglas, Josh Harrellson, Jerome Jordan and two future second-round picks (how could I forget a deal like that?).
Going into the 2012-13 season, Houston had taken a step back from the year before. Everyone who followed the Rockets was prepared for the worst, but, then, Morey provided Rockets fans with a simple twist of fate. In what was a fair trade, Morey pried James Harden, who was on the last year of his rookie deal, away from the Oklahoma City Thunder for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, the Raptors' 2013 first-round pick (which turned into Steven Adams, who might be as good as Aaron Gray) another first-round pick, and a second-round pick. Houston then gave Harden a max deal, and, all of a sudden, Morey had his first star.
Before anyone had time to think, the 2012-13 season was underway, and Harden made his presence known immediately by scoring 82 points in the first two games of the year (both of which were victories). As a whole, the season went better than expected, as Houston finished 45-37 and earned its first playoff berth in four years. Although Houston fell in the first round of the playoffs, it went into the offseason with two foundational players in Harden and Chandler Parsons, a handful of serviceable rotational players, and a collection of young big men who were (and are) still maturing.
We all know what happened next: The Rockets landed free agency's top prize, Dwight Howard, prying him out of the hands of the fumbling Los Angeles Lakers. After bringing in D12, Morey ornamented the squad with a series of financially savvy moves, which has ensured that Houston will have competition at all its bench positions, which keeps the guys riding the pine hungry and motivated.
I've made it very clear that I think the Rockets are contenders this season (20-percent chance of getting out of the West to handicap it), and although the players play the games, Morey needs to get the credit he deserves.
Less than a year ago, Morey had come away empty-handed time after time, but his persistence on scoring a couple of stars paid off in the end. Has Morey been perfect in Houston? Of course not. He drafted Patrick Patterson over Larry Sanders, Eric Bledsoe, and Avery Bradley. He drafted Royce White over Andrew Nicholson (who I think is going to be a Carl Landry kind of guy in time), Evan Fournier, and Jared Sullinger. He gave Jeremy Lin too much money. He traded Nicolas Batum for Donte Greene on draft night. Even with these mishaps, Morey deserves only praise for how he has transformed this franchise, and there's absolutely no doubt that we'll see new general managers pop up with the title of "The Next Daryl Morey" (which will serve as the polar opposite of "The Next David Kahn").
Morey's job is definitely not over, and he knows that better than anyone else. Houston's roster still needs some more fine tuning, and, luckily for Morey, he has one of the better trade assets in the NBA in Omer Asik (and Jeremy Lin, but I don't feel like going there today). Make no mistake about it, a deal centered around Donatas Motiejunas or Terrence Jones, with Asik serving as the second piece to make the money work (and provide Houston's trade partner with a little more help in the immediate future) is what Morey will be working the phone lines all season to pull off.
If there's one thing we know about Morey, it's that he's persistent. Rockets fans have every reason to believe that Morey will be able to score the final piece, and anyone who's doubting him needs to take a look at what he's done for the last six years. We know that Morey isn't going to leave this Rockets team out to dry the way the Cleveland Cavaliers did to the LeBron James-led 2010 Cavs. If Houston's young big men aren't providing the team with what it needs out of the 4 spot, you can rest assured that Morey isn't going to use the Cavaliers logic of, "Hey, let's go get a career loser in Antawn Jamison and see if that'll be the final piece."
Trying to guess who Morey is going after is nearly impossible, as Morey never tips his hand. And year after year pulls off a trade that comes out of nowhere (last year it was the Thomas Robinson deal), but every fan should know that he's not just siting up in his office smoking cigars and waiting for the team to improve itself.
With the Rockets' preseason set to begin October 5, the attention will move from the franchise as a whole, to the court. While Howard, Harden and Parsons are leading Houston to what promises to be its most successful season in half a decade (probably more), Morey will be hard at work, doing everything in his power to finish the job; he's got through the first seven innings, now he's got to figure out the setup man.
The players are the only ones who can close it out, but most teams never make it to the ninth inning with a lead.
M. De Moor is an NBA junkie and the writer of The Daily Fix on Hoopshabit.com. He has followed the Rockets since he was a child, when Eldridge Recasner was one of his favorite players for shooting 43% from the three-point line in the 1995-96 season.
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