We plan and carefully prepare, but often our lives are shaped by the unexpected. The surprise job offer, the college admission to the better school, the sudden death of a loved one. Good or bad, we cope when fate appears and make the most of the hand dealt, even if needing a completely different route.
Saturday’s acquisition of Thunder guard James Harden was an unexpected boon for Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. Only time will tell how good they’ll be, but with the trade, Morey’s team now has a distinct shape. Harden, guard Jeremy Lin, center Omer Asik, and forward Chandler Parsons are all—or in Harden’s case expected to be soon—locked in long term. To fill the hole at power forward, many expect Morey to make use of the money his team has available below the cap.
But most everyone will remember that in the past year, the Rockets came close to striking two other franchise altering deals, each of which would have left the team looking very different than it currently appears, and setting it on a path distinct from the current track.
Last December, David Stern struck down a deal which would have landed Lakers forward Pau Gasol in Houston. Via uncontroverted sources, then-Nuggets forward Nene would have been next in line to put on red. Had it all happened, the team’s lineup would look something like this:
Reports were at the time that the team had requested the agent for forward Chuck Hayes to hold off on signing with Sacramento until they could complete the trade; Lin was only waived to make room later for Samuel Dalembert.
As for Budinger and Lee, it’s anyone’s guess whether the latter would have been re-signed this offseason or if the former would still have been dealt. But from the desire for continuity, we’ll assume they’d have stayed. Royce White was selected with the New York Knicks’ #16.
This August, the Rockets were again heavily in talks with the Orlando Magic—discussions which had been ongoing over the past year—about a trade for center Dwight Howard. That deal would have sent out the two draft picks used in the Harden trade, two players from among the group of Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Donatas Motiejunas, Jeremy Lamb, Royce White, and Terrence Jones, and would have required the Rockets to take back two of Jason Richardson, Chris Duhon, and Hedo Turkoglu.
Rob Hennigan chose instead to bank on “the potential” of 27-year-old guard Arron Afflalo.” It’s easy to point to deals that don’t go through and cite them as examples of what might have been – 99% of trades discussed in the NBA do not come to fruition. But in this case, that Howard didn’t become a Rocket should be seen as an anomaly. Almost all objective observers were in agreement that Houston was offering the far superior package. In a normal market, where both buyers and sellers were equally informed and competent, Howard would now be wearing red.
Lin would’ve been at point, Parsons at the ‘3’, Howard at center, and Patterson or one of the rookies at the ‘4’. Jason Richardson probably would have been at the ‘2’.
Which of the three teams would you have preferred? With Howard, Houston would have still had money left over—after amnestying Luis Scola—for another big signing next summer. But there was the huge risk that Howard might have bolted.
The Gasol Rockets would’ve contended. They would’ve had a three-headed monster in Lowry/Gasol/Nene that could’ve taken them deep into the playoffs. But their window was smaller and they didn’t have the ball-handling wing/guard usually needed to win big, nor did they have the avenue/assets left to acquire one. At the time, it was thought Terrence Williams could become that player but we know how that ended.
The Harden Rockets probably don’t have the upside of the Howard version but they also are spared of the uncertainty. As mentioned, all major pieces are locked in and young and there is a clear route to obtain a second star. They also have clean hands: despite his dominance, it would’ve been tough to root for Dwight Howard.
But unlike the Gasol version, the Harden Rockets will take time. They might not be ready for another few years. The Gasol/Nene Rockets would’ve been vying today for the #1 seed. But again, they’d have a smaller window. Will fans stay patient to watch this current team grow or would they have preferred immediate success?
After two botched deals, killed off by unlikely events out of his control (evil/dishonesty – Stern; incompetence – Hennigan), things ended up working out quite well for Daryl Morey. We saw from the Gasol deal that he would’ve been willing to go old and from the Howard trade that he wasn’t averse to huge risks. And now we see from the Harden trade the fruits of staying ready.
And that’s the lesson. If one thing’s been learned, there has all along only been one philosophy: staying ready and staying flexible. It’s what Morey himself said, each time after each and every failure, when a star was snatched away by unforeseen events. Most scoffed and mocked the notion. Finally, for Morey, it paid off.