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July 17, 2012
Rockets
Bold Play

by Bradford Doolittle

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For five years now, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has been a canary in the coalmine for the basketball analytical community. He's the first of his kind, really, as someone who rose through the front office ranks to become a decision-maker for an NBA franchise based on a background rich in analytical acumen. Statistically-oriented hoops fans all over the world have erected little Daryl Morey shrines next to their spreadsheet-addled laptops.

When Morey took over as the Rockets' general manager on May 10, 2007, it was heralded as the beginning of the Moneyball age in the NBA, an evolution that would re-shape how the league operates. Indeed, the NBA is more analytical than ever before. Teams are using advanced metrics and data in more innovative ways, and an affinity for numbers is increasingly becoming an essential part of a complete basketball operations team. Morey was at the vanguard of this trend. He himself wrote in the Economist, "the basketball world today can be divided between a new wave of objective statistical techniques and traditional methods of visual observation."

During Morey's tenure, the Rockets have tied for ninth in the league in regular-season wins and are just a handful of victories shy of ranking in the top seven. Unfortunately, Houston hasn't yet been able to overcome some really bad luck. The year before Morey took over, he was the assistant general manager of a Houston team that featured two of the top players in the league in Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, both of whom seemed to be just entering their respective primes. A half decade later, injuries have left McGrady a shell of his former self and resulted in Yao's early retirement.

Still, the Rockets have finished over .500 in each of the three years since Yao was first injured. But they haven't made the playoffs. In fact, they've won just one playoff series since Morey took over as GM. Despite this, Morey has been widely praised for the job he's done in Houston under difficult circumstances. He's built competitive teams with undervalued talent and has done so while remaining disciplined and flexible with his team's finances. He's earned additional respect for refusing to let his team tank in order to position it for a high lottery pick.

The post-Yao Rockets have been built on depth and have generally featured more than one solid performer at each position. There has not been anything like a star-level performer. Kevin Martin has been a big scorer, but lacks the playmaking ability or defensive chops to be considered a star. He's been joined by widely-admire role players like Trevor Ariza, Shane Battier, Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry, just to name a few. If these players were at the middle levels of a pyramid that had a healthy Yao and McGrady on top, the Rockets would be right smack in the middle of the championship conversation.

But they're not, and Morey hasn't been able to escape a basketball truism: You can't win a championship without a surefire Hall-of-Famer leading the way. Just take a moment and scan the list of the NBA's 66 championship teams. How many of them lacked a truly great player? Perhaps a handful, like the 2004 Pistons, or 1979 Super Sonics, the 1951 Royals or the 1948 Bullets. That's really about it.

In that same Economist article, Morey wrote, "Looking to the past is indisputably the best way to shift the odds in a forecaster's favor." He was referring to the surprising development of Jeremy Lin, but the same statement could be made about building a championship team. It's a lesson he seems to have taken to heart this summer.

Morey's approach to the offseason has a lot of people scratching their heads. It's not hard to understand the concern. In my own offseason forecasting model, the Rockets started with a baseline projection of 38.8 wins. That included the draft as well as the pre-draft trades that sent Chase Budinger and Samuel Dalembert out of town. That baseline projection has been steadily dwindling. Through Saturday's transactions, I've got the Rockets for 27 wins, the worst forecast in the West. The 11.8 wins Morey has lost from his projection during the free agency period are by far the most in the league.

Morey has locked into a relentless quest for a star player, namely Dwight Howard. His pursuit of Howard has been like Ahab going after his white whale, or Walter White pursuing the meth monopoly of New Mexico. Good players have fallen by the wayside in this singular pursuit: Budinger, Dalembert, Lowry, Scola, Goran Dragic, Courtney Lee and Marcus Camby.

Here's what's left: Martin (who has one year and $12.4 million left on his contract, making him highly fungible), European import Donatas Motiejunas (who has so far been impressive in the Las Vegas Summer League), three first-round picks from the most recent draft, two players on rookie contracts in Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris and a whole slew of second-round picks and non-guaranteed contracts.

Here's a question I could ask of Knicks fans, who never seem to like what I write about their team: What kind of team do you want to root for?

I can only answer this for myself, but I want to root for a team that positions itself for a real shot at a championship, whether that shot comes now or in the future. I don't like the Knicks' approach because not only does the roster not add up to a title, but because it also cuts off so many avenues for eventually getting to that level. Morey recognized that his team was entering the territory of limited ceiling, and rather than consign the Rockets to Sisyphean-style mediocrity, he's taken steps to escape the middle class. One way or another.

Can the Rockets land Howard? In an abstract sense, Morey can't offer the Magic fair value for Howard. No one can, really, not even the Lakers. Instead, Morey can offer the opportunity to rebuild. A clean slate, so to speak, which is reportedly what incoming Magic GM Rob Hannigan most desires.

Houston's trade-friendly assets are plentiful. By shipping Martin to Orlando along with all of those first- and second-year players and a few future picks, the Rockets can soak up virtually all of Orlando's unwieldy salary obligations. Hannigan was hired away from Oklahoma City, and it's the Thunder model he is trying to follow. Morey can help him along that path.

According to a Marc Stein and Chad Ford report, Morey is willing to send Martin, Patterson, Morris and Chandler Parsons along with some combination of this year's draft picks and future selections. In doing so, he could free Houston to take back as much as $47 million in 2012-13 in salary from the Magic. As Zach Lowe points out, that happens to be almost the exact combined salaries of Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, Chris Duhon, Glen Davis and Jason Richardson. In essence, the Rockets would become the Magic.

But here's where Morey's already-proven skill would come into play: Finding valuable, cost-efficient supporting players. And with Howard in the middle, this time it would make a real difference.

Let's take a stab at an initial Rockets rotation if Morey could pull off a Howard trade:

  • Centers: Dwight Howard, Josh Harrellson
  • Point guards: Toney Douglas, Chris Duhon
  • Shooting guards: Jason Richardson, Jeremy Lamb
  • Small forward: Hedo Turkoglu
  • Power forwards: Donatas Motiejunas, Glen Davis

These nine players project to be about a 40-win team, though there is a clear hole at point guard that undermines that estimate. The combined projected salaries of this group are about $53 million, or about $5 million under the cap. Not too exciting, is it? Of course, there are two pending situations that could impact this scenario in a profound fashion. Those are the offer sheets to Lin and Omer Asik.

After a certain amount of silliness out in Vegas, the Knicks finally have an offer sheet in hand for Lin and are expected to use the entirety of the three-day waiting period before announcing whether they will match the offer. Asik's offer sheet hasn't been signed, but that's a formality and a matter of timing.

It's been assumed that the Knicks will match on Lin, but after Saturday's reported deal for New York to acquire Raymond Felton from the Trail Blazers, suddenly that's no longer a given. And that could be a huge get for the Rockets. Once we plug in Lin to our forecast, Houston's projection suddenly jump to over 50 wins, and the Rockets would still be able to add to the mix with cap exceptions and minimum-salaried veterans. This is where Morey's evaluative skills would come into play.

If Houston ends up with Lin, the possible addition of Asik could become problematic. On the court, he'd be a perfect backup for Howard, but his presence would reduce the amount of salary Houston could take on, thus reducing its chances of convincing Hannigan to pull the trigger. However, involving a third team to absorb one of Orlando's bad contracts could help to alleviate that issue, though it would cost Houston yet another young asset or pick, or both.

There are two possible flies in the ointment. First, Howard could pout his way through the season, then leave as a free agent next summer. Second, Hannigan could choose to deal with another team, thus leaving Morey with his skeletal roster. Either way, the risk pales in comparison with the upside of having Howard as the successor to a proud lineage of Rockets centers, from Moses Malone to Hakeem Olajuwon to Yao.

The worst that can happen is that the Rockets end up where the Magic want to be: Starting over. Either way, Houston escapes the middle. Morey's plan may seem risky, but that's the only way to make a play for a championship in the NBA. So stop scratching your head. Morey's ballsy pursuit of Howard is the way to go.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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