I first began writing this series in 2009, back when Aaron Brooks was this team’s best player. At the time, for Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, there was just a vision and a plan for how to get things done. Morey came out on top in most of his trades, earning praise and plaudits along the way. But still, it remained to be seen, could he ever reel in the big fish? Being the smartest guy in the room was one thing, but would his moves ever lift the team into true contention? Less than four years later, it’s happened. The Rockets now contractually employ two of the game’s ten best players and are universally acknowledged as one of the league’s top threats to take the title. What’s more, Morey’s top two assistants are gone, plucked to fill leading man positions, serving as a final validation of his methods. For Daryl Morey, the heavy lifting is done. Oh, work still remains to fine tune this roster while carefully skirting the tax. But the burden now is off. As a general manager, Morey has reached the pinnacle. Now, it must be done on the court by the players and the coach.
Process over results
The Royce White saga ended mercifully this July with that player’s departure to Philadelphia by way of trade. White was an outright disaster, creating headlines for his obstinance rather than his play. Morey’s critics saw their chance and leaped, relishing the opportunity to pile on what was a wasted pick. And indeed, White was a wasted pick, and probably Morey’s biggest mistake. But if you asked Morey, there’s a strong chance he’d tell you he could live with the decision and if he could go back, he probably would do the same thing again.
In his introductory press conference with the Philadelphia 76ers, Sam Hinkie mentioned the importance of “process over results” in the evaluation of decision-making. This isn’t exactly a novel concept in the corporate world as most smart organizations reflect back similarly. But it’s foreign to a sports news cycle consumed with second-guessing and keeping score. In fact, given the ineptitude of most NBA front offices, I’m not even sure most lead-men are properly auditing their past decisions.
White was taken because where the Rockets were, in June, last summer, before James Harden, was in a state of little hope, with a roster bereft of game-changing talent. The Rockets considered White to be among the five best talents in that draft and at #16, deemed him worth the risk, despite the red flags. At that time, to get out of the hole they were in, the Rockets needed to hit a home-run. They had to take a risk.
When Morey looks back on the White pick, he won’t just chalk it up as a mistake because of its failure. He’ll assess the data he received and the channels through which it was gathered. Did they get bad intel as to White’s character? Did they properly measure the risk? If those areas both check out, Morey won’t consider the pick to have been a bad decision just because it didn’t work out. He knew there were difficult odds going in.
Similarly, it’s popular now to slam the Marcus Morris pick, at #14, from two summers ago, especially given the emergence of Kawhi Leonard into a frontline defensive star. But again, while Leonard now is clearly the far superior player, I can’t say Marcus Morris was a bad pick because the rationale used was sound. At that time, like last summer, the Rockets did not have a star player on their roster nor anyone who could consistently create shots for himself. Players like Leonard were more surer bets. But the Rockets felt that as a small forward—a position different from his native power forward slot—Morris had star potential. They had to swing for the fences given their situation and like with White, they whiffed.
In assessing the Morris pick, the Rockets will need to evaluate their scouting and the breakdown in forecasting Morris as a ‘3’, just like how they’ll need to reconsider the hearsay testimony they received giving White a clean emotional bill of health. But Morris wasn’t a bad pick just because he failed. He can be considered a bad pick only if, like White, pitted against the situation the team was in, the risk was not properly assessed. Were the odds of Morris becoming an impact player as a small forward high enough to warrant using a #14 given the low odds of success, in general, for players picked at that spot? If so, it was a good pick. The Rockets didn’t need a sure thing – they needed a home-run.
Bad decisions are those lacking sound rationale. Signing Kelvin Cato to a $42million contract on the basis of a 1-game sample size is a bad decision. Signing Matt Maloney after four playoff games of good shooting is a bad decision. Signing Moochie Norris for $20million for the maintenance of fraternity is a bad decision. The Royce White and Marcus Morris picks were not bad decisions. They were failures, but they were rationally informed, calculated decisions.
Shift to conventional model
When you have star players, life becomes easier, from the top on downward. The despair out of which the Marcus Morris and Royce White picks were borne is now gone. The team no longer has to swing for the fences. They likely won’t ever again be picking that high, but if the Rockets ever happen to stumble upon a late lottery pick through trade, they’ll likely use it on someone they know can immediately step in and help them, not someone they think has hope of becoming a star. That was how things played out when they had Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming and traded Rudy Gay—a player with upside—for Shane Battier, a player whose ceiling had been reached but who could help the team immediately.
They’ll save some roster spots for veterans, like Marcus Camby, that can play now, rather than carrying projects down to the twelfth man. But what will be interesting to see is how they maintain the balance needed to keep from robbing Peter to pay Paul. While the team will need vets, they’ll need at least some prospects to keep the pipeline fresh and prevent what happened under Carrol Dawson from ever happening again, (when the team had to sign aging ex-Knicks just to have warm bodies.) That’s why Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas are safe, for now, even if there are probably more productive options to be had.
I hear it most often on the radio, but it pops up a lot sometimes on the ‘web as well: “Daryl Morey doesn’t value chemistry.” Forgive me for my bluntness, but it’s really an asinine opinion with no logical basis.
Chemistry is a luxury to be procured upon the securement of a sound foundation. To use an analogy, you don’t put leather interior on an ’86 Pinto – the car is garbage anyway. Time after time, I hear fans call in to the radio, positing the narrative that “if Daryl would just stop making so many trades and let these guys grow, they could get better.” “How’s the team supposed to get better if he just keeps trading everyone away?”
What is missed is that if the upside of a group isn’t adequately high, chemistry isn’t a priority – it’s a waste of time. Another example: take me and four writers from my staff and put us on an NBA court. If we play together long enough, we’ll get better just by developing chemistry. But that’s really irrelevant because our upside doesn’t suffice – we’ll never be good enough to contend regardless.
The asset arbitrage of the past few years seems odd to the casual fan. It’s not normal to keep flipping players. But the goal was to accumulate value until ultimately cashing in on elite talent. Now it’s happened, in the persons of James Harden and Dwight Howard, and now, the chemistry building will begin. From 2007 through 2009, Morey kept together the quintet of Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Shane Battier, Rafer Alston, and Chuck Hayes, adding pieces around them. Similarly, he’ll likely look to keep Chandler Parsons—alongside James Harden and Dwight Howard–when the small forward’s contract is up, even if Parsons’ expected market rate diminishes his value.