Houston has had a lousy offseason. While general manager Daryl Morey is spinning it as “continuing to be flexible” going forward, it’s hard to argue that swapping Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons for Trevor Ariza (all while emerging with a net of one fewer future second round pick from the moves), will make the Rockets better on the court. Paradoxically, though, the decision to not match Parsons’ offer sheet from the Dallas Mavericks is better for Morey himself than it is for the Rockets as a whole.
If the Rockets had matched Parsons, the Rockets would be largely locked in to a Harden/Howard/Parsons/Ariza core. Future moves would be limited and, in the immortal words of Normal Dale, “my team is on the floor.”
With no more trump cards to play, years of effort and circling around assets would have produced an exciting though extremely flawed team built around two stars with warts so obvious as to eternally land themselves in the dreaded “can you win with him as your best player?” zone. With the painting completed, there would be nothing else upon which to judge Morey’s performance other than the short term results. That team could well be a winner, in which case all is fine. But if it flounders or even falls apart, that’s possibly it for Morey’s run as well.
This tactical retreat (which does preserve flexibility) means Morey avoids this sort of immediate, results-based scrutiny from higher-ups. Sure the media and blogosphere will have their fun. Other GMs will snigger in private – the schadenfreude in the air was palpable during Vegas Summer League. However, from a continued employment standpoint, the ability to say “it’s not done yet” is a decent way of avoiding hard-eyed evaluation. Self-preservation probably wasn’t the deciding factor in in the decision to allow Parsons to leave for Dallas, but professional job security is unlikely to ever be far from the an executive’s mind in a world as cutthroat and political as the NBA.
Franchises making questionable moves when a GMs job might be on the line are nothing new. The personal calculus of an executive on the hot seat is plain to see: continue making reasonable, judicious smallball moves that don’t overly burden the franchise, and get fired because the team is bad and will stay bad, or make a big swing for the fences that if it works keeps you employed. If not, hey, you were getting fired anyway. Bad contracts, shot-at-the-moon trades and splash-making draft picks ensue. It’s a natural outcropping of a situation where the interests of the franchise as a whole and the GM personally don’t align.
A more extreme version of this phenomenon exists in Philadelphia. Sam Hinkie has been roundly praised for his approach to rebuilding the team, yet there is literally zero evidence from which to draw conclusions. To this point in his tenure, Hinke hasn’t even been playing in the same game as the 29 other GMs. Once ownership is sold on the plan to bottom out to amass high lotto picks and cap space, he had essentially a three-year window where it was impossible for him to fail. Lose every game? Great job, right on schedule. The team outperforms expectations? Great job, ahead of schedule, good work finding those diamonds in the rough.
On balance it’s not hard to credit Hinkie with executing this plan well. Certainly, a little luck doesn’t hurt in terms of the best prospect in each of the last two drafts (Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid) falling to the Sixers due to injury. But the losing and assembling of top end lotto talent is the easy part, when it comes time to turn all these picks and assets into a real contending team, how will he do? Even he proves spectacularly inept, he’ll have had at least 5 years as an NBA general manager. Not exactly a terrible worst-case scenario.
By punting on a Harden/Howard/Parsons/Ariza core, Morey might be similarly resetting this clock for himself. And a reset it is, with many of the assets the Rockets worked so tirelessly to assemble either traded or expired. The team is by no means a disaster, but it’s more than fair to ask whether the achievement has matched the rhetoric and if the franchise would have progressed further with a less visible GM.