Last week, in BDL's preview of the Houston Rockets, I pontificated on general manager Daryl Morey's ability to make really great individual moves that didn't necessarily figure into any kind of long-term plan. Over many years, he stock-piled assets for a superstar trade that never came. The roster changed and results didn't. It was hard to know exactly what the Rockets were trying to be.
After Saturday's trade for James Harden, the Rockets have, if not a bona fide superstar, then at least an excellent player who could be a first option on a pretty good playoff team. That makes him a gamble, particularly after he signs his max-level contract, but, as Mark Deeks said earlier Tuesday, it's a gamble the Rockets had to take. Players like Harden don't become available often — even if it's not "unprecedented" — and there's no guarantee that the Rockets would have had a chance to get another player of this caliber and age anytime soon.
Morey emphasized that the Rockets are in position to add more.
"We have max salary room moving forward," he said. "It's there for the right player when the time is right."
Harden, who won the Sixth Man Award last season for Oklahoma City, is the first piece.
"You have to have a foundational player," Morey said. "He is. Simple as that. Now we need to add another player, or have one of our current players develop. You need two All-Stars to win in this league. We're not there yet. But he changes the whole dynamic."
In other words, Morey is going to keep wheeling and dealing in order to add another star. From one point of view, that means many things won't change in Houston: There will still be somewhat regular trades and a sense that the current roster is incomplete. Given Morey's proclivities, we could just see a modified version of the past three years, in which the Rockets GM moves around spare parts regularly in the hope of happening upon an attractive combination of trade pieces. Except, this time, Harden would stay put while madness swirls around him.
However, there's good reason to think the Rockets are now a very different entity. Before, when Morey made deals, he did so in search of a foundation for the franchise. Even if he proves to be a disappointment (which, to be clear, I don't think will happen), Harden will occupy the role of franchise player for at least the next two or three seasons. Morey will therefore make moves that fit Harden, making more targeted decisions instead of throwing many up against a wall and seeing what sticks. Whereas the Rockets used to have tactics in service of a vague long-term plan, they now have a structure that lends meaning to every move they make.
That's not to say that adding a second star will be easy, or that Morey already knows exactly which kinds of players will fit best with Harden. But he at least has a rubric to define his future decisions. The Rockets are no longer entirely at the mercy of the market and the whims of franchises looking to trade unhappy superstars. Now that they have a foundational player, they can finally create their own future.