These are trying times for Daryl Morey. After early acclaim, consecutive lottery finishes have brought out the skeptics in full force. “How can one be deemed competent, much less some sort of genius, without tangible results?” the thinking goes.
As I’ve explained in all of my evaluations, of just about everyone from Kevin McHale to Tracy McGrady over the years, context and circumstances are what matter.
Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, GM’s in all of basketball. And in truth, he’s done a great job, hitting on all of his high picks in drafting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. But look at the circumstances under which he took over that team.
In 2007, when Presti was handed the reins, the team owned the rights to the 2nd overall pick in the draft. Ownership, while involved in some controversial dealings, also held no false impressions about the team – they allowed Presti to trade resident All-Stars Ray Allen (for the #5 pick) and Rashard Lewis (for a $9million trade exception and 2nd round draft pick) and start fresh with a clean slate both financially and with respect to personnel.
The importance of this initial chain of events cannot be understated. The sequence allowed the Thunder to get bad and acquire successive high-end picks.
This above isn’t mentioned to make light of Presti’s accomplishments. He still had to select the right guys, as he did. But it illustrates the importance of considering circumstances in assessment. Success isn’t borne in a vacuum and shouldn’t just be weighed from results. What were things like when the man in charge first took over?
Now, let’s look at Morey. When he took over the Rockets, in that same year, 2007, in retrospect, it was possibly the worst possible circumstances for a general manager. Why? Because the existing personnel directly induced stagnation. The Rockets had two superstars, both on their last legs. Because McGrady and Yao took turns going in and out of the lineup, the team could never be great, but the mere presence of one at all times was prohibitive of a high draft pick. Had they just had neither player, they at least would have gone in some direction.
In addition, while Morey inherited those prohibitive stars from Carrol Dawson, the latter’s estate left nothing else holding any more value than a steaming pile of crap. Look at that 2006-2007 roster: after Battier—Morey’s signature acquisition from the year before as assistant GM—the next best players were Juwon Howard, Rafer Alston, and Luther Head. Luther Head.
So in essence, like OKC, the 2007 Houston roster was complete trash void of any young talent, yet rather than inheriting the #2 and #5 picks in the draft, Morey got two stars who were never enough but whose very presence assured against getting picks of that aforementioned kind.
But he made the best of what he had. Within just one year, by the end of the season, Morey had acquired Aaron Brooks, Kyle Lowry, Von Wafer, Ron Artest, Carl Landry, and Luis Scola, building a full-fledged supporting cast around Yao Ming out of basically nothing.
Fast forward to today and Goran Dragic, Courtney Lee, Chandler Parsons, and Chase Budinger are in the place of the others and were acquired through similarly frugal means. The team hasn’t progressed but I’ve made clear exactly why. The greater point is that Morey started off with an awful hand and is in a similarly rotten lot with ownership’s current mandate. To those holding criticisms, what exactly would you have done differently?
I talked a bit about agency cost in corporations when discussing Kevin McHale’s divergent incentives from management. Let’s shift our discussion now to an example in political science. Scholars have theorized that in developing nations, democracy is incompatible with the initial stages of economic reform. Why? Because if leaders are fearful they’ll be replaced by vote, they won’t institute the painful changes consistent with free market transitions. To put it simply, men in charge can’t do what needs to be done if it immediately hurts those with power to remove them.
I’ve written enough explaining why the Rockets need to start over. But if ownership insists on “winning,” there’s nothing any general manager can do. Result: stagnation.
Morey surely knows he’s running out of time to accomplish the unrealistic task he’s been assigned. I believe he’ll head first to the June 28th draft with plans of pursuing Dwight Howard. He’ll put forth all of his chips in hopes of landing the one superstar in the field. But if that fails, I don’t think they’ll blow it up as they should. I think, if the Lakers are willing, it’s almost inevitable for the Rockets to acquire Pau Gasol.
In Part 2, I talked about revolving door rosters. In essence, fans want “foundations” like OKC; fans want young players who they can watch grow up, identify with and cheer for for close to a decade. But fans don’t have jobs at stake with respect to the matter. It’s rare that a manager has the job security to oversee a complete overhaul as is the ideal. In most cases, I think leading men just want to show enough return, enough tangible growth to stay alive and keep building. Without trust, less risks can be taken.
I believe that after three straight lottery finishes, Daryl Morey knows he might probably need to make the playoffs to save his job. This is why I think he will pursue the bird-in-hand.
Pau Gasol is the classic market gem. A sure-fire star, his value has diminished to 25 cents on the dollar due to public perceptions. If the name of the game is finding value on the cheap, getting Gasol makes too much sense.
The Lakers would need to play ball. But if Lowry and Scola are dealt for Gasol, and Dragic and Lee are resigned, along with Parsons, Camby, and the expected contributions of just one of the #14, #16, and Donatas Motiejunas (you know at least one rookie will pan out), you’d have to pencil in the Rockets for a trip to the postseason and 50 wins if not very close to it. Ownership would be happy and Morey would get more time.
This isn’t how I would do it, but I fear Rockets management no longer has the capitol to bide its time and wait for the right move. Still, the main hope and main pursuit will remain Howard. That would fulfill every goal in one swoop.