By his own admission, it was a “tough weekend” for Daryl Morey. The Houston General Manager struck out in his attempt to land Chris Bosh, who returned to Miami for max money (5 years, $118 million) instead of forming a new Big Three with Dwight Howard and James Harden in the Space City for one fewer year and many fewer dollars. The Rockets also lost up-and-coming swingman Chandler Parsons to in-state rival Dallas without gaining so much as a single asset in return, a surprising turn of events, considering Morey could’ve simply brought the 25 year old small forward back for around $960,000 in 2014-15. Finally, he signed notorious contract-year superstar Trevor Ariza for $32 million over 4 seasons — a cheaper alternative to Parsons, but fraught with risk all the same.
Being the face of the analytics movement in the NBA, accurate or inaccurate as that may be, has garnered Daryl Morey a lot of attention, especially since the now-infamous 2009 New York Times Magazine article on Shane Battier brought his theories into the limelight. Portrayed as the Billy Beane of basketball, relying heavily on advanced statistics and eschewing box score categories, the darling of the annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at M.I.T. has watched his team reach the second round of the playoffs just once in his 8 seasons at the helm. And while the past two summers have been successes (landing James Harden in a trade, luring Dwight Howard via free agency), weekends like the one he just had, coupled with the postseason shortcomings of his teams, enable and empower those who revel in his (and his team’s) failure.
Those who are leery of (or downright resistant to) the important role analytics plays in how the game is understood and evaluated love to hate the Rockets. But to criticize Daryl Morey isn’t necessarily rooted in an antiquated, pre-SportVU mindset. Even front offices run by people with analytics backgrounds would admit their numbers inform decisions rather than make them. The degree to which analytics holds sway for franchise decision-makers is what varies from city to city, rather than whether they’re utilized or not. Morey and the Houston Rockets may be skewed toward their analytic approach, but they aren’t robots. They must, at some level, consider the human element.
Whether they consider that human element enough is where one criticism of Morey’s approach can really take shape. There have been 43 different players to suit up for the Rockets over the past three seasons. In his quest to clear the cap space and assemble the assets necessary to acquire superstars, he has shuffled around starters, role players and journeymen at a rapid clip, flipping players for others with non-guaranteed deals and second round picks, all in the name of salary cap savvy.
Players are used to being treated as assets rather than people, to some extent. But if the Rockets do end up with their third superstar, whether it’s Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo or somebody else, it will be important to recruit veteran role players willing to sign for below market value to fill out the roster. In exchange for agreeing to a bargain, they not only hope to win, but to be treated right. Players talk. Agents talk. They have families. They buy houses and send their children to school and have neighbors and favorite restaurants and probably even preferred spots to walk the dog or pick up groceries. They’re, you know, regular people, at least when they aren’t on a basketball court.
That isn’t to say Morey is particularly devious or cutthroat. Business is business, and most players understand that. But it is fair to wonder if a veteran looking for stability would view all of Houston’s turnover as a demerit, and opt to go elsewhere, even if he’s bypassing a shot at winning. It was rather telling that when Chandler Parsons, who was criminally underpaid during his first three seasons in the NBA, finally got his overdue payday, Morey commented on how “untradeable” the contract was. Of course, he has to think that way to a certain extent, but sometimes teams pay players, even overpay them, because they actually want to keep them around.
The second critique to be made of Morey is his myopic pursuit of the superteam model. His agenda is perfectly clear – he wants three stars and spare parts. Almost all of his moves reflect this philosophy, determined by him to be the best way to build title team.
The Rockets appear content to ignore the old adage that teams need time to gel. Now that Chandler Parsons is officially a Maverick, the longest tenured players on Houston’s roster are Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones, 23 and 22 years old, respectively, each possessing two years of NBA experience. In Houston, two whole years in the fold is a long time. Besides turning off potential free agents from considering Houston (Carmelo and LeBron didn’t even appear give it a second thought) with all the constant shuffling and roster turnover, is there a more observable, if not quantifiable, lesson to learn? If we look at the past decade of champions, what can they teach us besides the fact that superstar(s) are a requirement to win?
The Spurs’ model of stability feeding success doesn’t require much elaboration. But over the past decade, other championship teams have been more stable, at least when it comes to their core group, than many people think. Take the Lakers: Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom finally broke through and won it all during their fifth and sixth seasons together (2009 and 2010). At the same time, Derek Fisher completed years 10 and 11 with Bryant. Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton each had multiple seasons under their belt by the time the Lakers were ready to make a run to the Finals. While it’s true that the acquisition of Pau Gasol was the final piece to the championship puzzle, without the rest of the roster in place, it’s unlikely the Lakers would have succeeded the way they did.
Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry were in year seven together when the Mavericks won it all in 2011. For Dallas, the 2007-08 season saw both the arrival of Jason Kidd and the ascent of J.J. Barea, both of whom played a key role in Dallas’ run four years later. Again, Shawn Marion (2009-10) and Tyson Chandler (summer of 2010) were the final pieces to the puzzle, but the structure was ready when they arrived. Paul Pierce welcomed Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007-08 and the three superstars spurred the Celtics to a championship, but the defensive chops of the team could be found in Tony Allen and Kendrick Perkins, both of whom were drafted by Boston in 2004. Even Miami’s Big Three had to take some lumps – they didn’t win a title until their second season despite having three top-15 players on their roster – but they also featured veteran role players who were vital to the Heat’s success. Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mike Miller and Chris Andersen were recruited to help. James Jones and Udonis Haslem were already present to set the tone. Without those guys, it’s possible LeBron would still be without a ring.
The argument could be made that Daryl Morey is still assembling his core, that all of this is pretext to his big move, the practice that will be perfected when he finally manufactures his trio of superstars. If he does make that happen, he’ll need to fill out his roster somehow, which looks may be difficult, given his modus operandi and the reputation it may earn him. If he doesn’t build his own Big Three, then all this maneuvering will look like little more than busy work, rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
That’s probably a bit harsh. The Houston Rockets are hardly the Titanic. Howard, Harden, Ariza, and Terrence Jones is a perfectly decent core group. Maybe it’ll all work out for Morey and company, and they’ll use some of their assets to land that superstar they dream of. But if the mission fails, it’ll be clear to everyone why it did, and there will be no shortage of those reveling in their demise. Such is the price of being run by a genius, and being called one; failures are amplified, and constant success is expected. The rough weekends are remembered. The good ones are not.