If Houston Rockets fans don’t think of what could have been, then they should be just fine. That takes a special kind of mind-warp, though. That’s some sort of cognitive dissonance at its absolute finest.
For a while there, it appeared as if the Houston Rockets were well on their way toward fielding a starting lineup featuring Dwight Howard, James Harden, Patrick Beverley, a returning Chandler Parsons and a newly-signed Chris Bosh. Rotation pieces and bench depth? Eh, they’ll figure it out. Hardly matters – look at that starting five!
As you well know, that starting five will never exist in this realm, unless some Rockets fan finds some sort of video game-bred nirvana to work with on his PlayStation. Bosh understandably took $30 million more to return to what is now a merely pretty good Miami Heat team. The Rockets understandably declined to match Dallas’ three-year, $46 million offer for a pretty good Chandler Parsons. The Rockets instead were left to engage in a sign-and-trade with Washington, and by extension New Orleans, in order to grab Trevor Ariza’s last productive years as a starter at four years, and $32 million.
Ariza’s nickname, as has been bandied about in NBA circles for years, should be “Contract Year.” That New Orleans end of the deal involved the Rockets sending the league’s best backup center in Omer Asik to the Pelicans for what will probably be a late lottery pick in next year’s draft, one that will produce a player nowhere as good as Omer Asik. Last year’s sometimes-starter, Jeremy Lin, was dealt with Houston’s next first-rounder to the Los Angeles Lakers in the attempt to clear cap space for Bosh.
Bosh didn’t show up. Things haven’t turned out.
If you’re that stone cold Rockets fan, staring down that half-full bottle of Shiner Bock? You reflect back on the idea that, as currently presented, the Rockets appear to be a slightly watered-down version of the team that was one jump shot away from the second round, a sure 50-game winner in the Toughest Conference Ever.
If you’re looking in from the outside, though, this feels like a major miscalculation. Or, rather, a series of minor miscalculations that grew into something bigger.
This is, as NBA fans know, Rocket general manager Daryl Morey’s style. He routinely spins forward assets in the hopes of pouncing on any available big fish, knowing that this is always a star-driven league. Once the Yao Ming/Tracy McGrady pairing finally wore down in 2009, Morey has constantly been reshuffling his team in the hopes that future carrots would lead to eventual chomps. The next trade deadline. The next draft. The next summer. Just before training camp. You just wait.
That’s not gone away. Morey no doubt respects Parsons’ game, but the price that a (let’s face it, desperate) Dallas Mavericks team signed him to was too rich to commit to. Parsons is a fine player, he takes nothing but the most efficient shots, and once he learns to put some arc on his three-pointers he’ll possibly turn into a lights-out three-point shooter (Chander shot at around the league average season), but keeping him around on those terms just couldn’t be worth it. Comparing his deal to Morey’s oft-mocked/oft-hailed poison pen contracts for Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin isn’t exactly ideal – neither player counted for eight figures against Houston’s salary cap during their stints with the team.
Dallas could afford to take this risk – Parsons isn’t worth his contract in a vacuum even if he improves as expected, but he’s certainly worth it to this team, and at only three years he’s the perfect partner to bounce around Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis. Houston sees itself as still having one more fish to land, and for good reason, but committing to that next step and leaving cap flexibility open (Ariza will make about half as much as Parsons and his contract declines in payment as the years move along) and assets on hand isn’t the worst idea, even if some Rockets fans are sick of that idea.
The issue here, as rumors float about Rajon Rondo and Kevin Love possibly acting as Morey’s next target, is that Houston is dreadfully short on assets. The next first-round pick the team can deal would be stuck in the 2017 NBA draft. Players like Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones are working on incredibly cheap contracts, but they’re hardly the earth-shakers that front offices in Minnesota or Boston would want in return for an impatient superstar.
What the Houston front office does have is a journey ahead of it with plenty of time, and plenty of space, something many Rocket fans are sick of hearing about. As we learned with the 2012 James Harden deal, Morey’s offseason doesn’t end until Halloween hits, and the team has ungodly amounts of cap room in spite of Howard and Harden making superstar money, and the deal for Trevor Ariza. Ideally, Morey has room to move with trades and free agency acquisitions.
The problem, again, is who Morey is supposed to go after.
He wants to keep the cap space clean, apparently, in a pipe dream as he chases down a 2015 or 2016 star free agent. He could pounce on a disgruntled player this fall that wasn’t able to come to terms with his team on a second deal a la Harden in 2012, but is this all pitched in the hopes that Nikola Vucevic doesn’t see eye to eye with the Orlando Magic this fall? Who’s going to be around, this summer and fall?
All of this points to the Rockets potentially taking a step back. Ariza will no doubt improve the team’s middling defense by a great deal, and he actually shot far better (CONTRACT YEAR, KELLY, COME ON) than Parsons from behind the arc and had comparable per-minute stats. Howard and Harden can’t help but play better. The team will miss Asik and Lin, but they were never long for this squad, and in Asik especially this reflected on the court (Lin seemed more nervous than resigned and frustrated). Nobody wants to hear that the Rockets are in a holding pattern, not after that first-round ouster that didn’t feel like a “first-round ouster,” but that’s sometimes how these things turn out.
It doesn’t mean Daryl Morey is a bad general manager, a poor observer of talent, or out of his league when it comes to negotiating with other teams. It just means he took some calculated risks and whiffed. Sometimes timing, context, and market inefficiencies don’t tilt good fortune to the smartest guy in the room. Especially as Morey has to work more and more with “smartest guy in the room”-types in competing front offices as the whole of the NBA gets better at this.
It’s early, and we’ve been surprised before by Morey. And it speaks to the ridiculous nature of this ridiculous league that all manner of planning, flexibility enhancements, and great ideas are often lapped several times over by good timing, and good luck.
Good luck, Houston.
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