So much has transpired in the last 24 hours that I am just now really completely gathering my thoughts. You can read the entire Dwight Howard Free Agency series here if you want to relive the agony and subsequent glory.
I was laying in bed late last night with Sportscenter on, Dwight on the screen, thinking back to the early days of Red94. The days of the team chasing around everyone under the sun with an Ipad–from Chris Bosh to Chris Paul, to even Dwight himself–and repeatedly getting rejected. To be here now – it feels good, man. The Rockets now have one of the most enviable duos in basketball, both players in their prime, locked up for the foreseeable future. This is really a chance at redemption; a chance to overcome the demons haunting the franchise in the aftermath of the respective careers of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming – a chance to live what we thought could have been, for that reviled, tantalizing duo.
I think back to the days when the likes of Kyle Lowry and Chuck Hayes were this team’s best players – lunch pail guys who sweated tears and blood but who weren’t enough to lift us from mediocrity. It seemed hopeless but Daryl Morey stuck with his plan and executed. It’s astonishing really, and probably still isn’t properly appreciated or understood in the general public. It’s 2013 and we’re just four years removed from the shambles of our last contending team and back again on a path to contention without having suffered a losing season in between. It feels good, man.
There are some in the local media, even celebrating now, who sh*tted on Morey and his staffers every step of the way, from the trite laptop jokes to other basic misunderstandings of smart management and process analytics. They owe an apology. Oh, it’ll be said now that the calls for a parade are premature, that nothing yet has been won and that the games have yet to be played. Morey and his staff have already won – in assembling this core, he did the most that could be asked of any general manager. Now it’s on the players and coach to bring the results, on the court.
This wasn’t just luck – this was the execution of a plan that’s been in motion from the start when it first seemed that Yao Ming would never be the same again. Yes, there are those in the print and on the airwaves who mocked Morey every step of the way. They failed to understand asset arbitrage and the importance of flipping players to accumulate value. That’s how Rafer Alston led to Kyle Lowry who ultimately led to James Harden. They failed to understand why marginal players were let go or weren’t re-signed at exorbitant costs or why the market always was allowed to set price rather than industry customs of ‘goodwill’ (i.e. see the Rockets’ long standing policy of not tendering extensions). The critics snickered, right here in Houston, writing and saying that “flexibility doesn’t win championships.” Now they see what flexibility does. The Dwight Howard signing wasn’t luck. It was the summit of a plan in motion for years to create value and create the space necessary to absorb a max free agent. The plan finally paid off.
Now the Rockets turn towards filling in the pieces around their frightening new duo. This is what Yao and McGrady didn’t have. I’ve lost count of the number of times over the years that I’ve said “if only Morey had been the GM during the Yao/Mac prime rather than Dawson.” Yao and McGrady wasted away their few spurts of health flanked by the likes of Ryan Bowen and Luther Head; these Rockets already have Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik (who can be swapped for value) as their 3rd and 4th best players. For years, Morey proved his magnificence at uncovering hidden gems, time and time again, from Carl Landry, to Kyle Lowry, to Shane Battier, to Chandler Parsons, to Patrick Beverley. Repeatedly, he stitched winning squads together on a shoe-string budget. If only he could acquire stars, we thought, there’d be no question of whether he could surround them. Now Morey has the stars.
I’ve seen many comments, from the national side or from the more casual, local fan, wondering how Houston can fill out its roster. Those people haven’t been watching closely. To those of us following, that’s the least of our worries right now. The Rockets, under Morey, will always be able to find quality role players on the cheap. That’s his specialty.
Rumors broke yesterday, shortly after the trade, that the Rockets were exploring deals for Josh Smith and Ryan Anderson (not in combination.) Those were also refuted and there was also a report that Omer Asik had requested a trade. The truth is unclear. We’ve debated the merits of a Smith acquisition, to the point of exhaustion. In terms of ‘fit’, Anderson is probably one of the very best in the league for a team featuring Dwight Howard. But after thinking it over, I don’t think now is the time for ‘fit.’ Acquiring Josh Smith could be near disastrous – he won’t space the floor and his questionable decision-making can bog down an entire offense. But his talents on the defensive end (ESPN’s Kevin Pelton rated him through statistical measures as the league’s very best perimeter defender) and in the open court are undeniable. Now in contention, I want the Rockets to acquire the very best talent. If it doesn’t work out in the end, I can live with that. But after seeing the Yao and McGrady years–after seeing the record setting playoff Game 4 in 2007 when only 4 Rockets scored–I don’t want to worry about fit. I don’t want to ever again lose by feeling we didn’t have enough talent or were overmatched. If we lose because our players didn’t mesh, that’s something I can live with.
Getting Smith would give the Rockets a lineup versatile enough to match up with the Thunder and Heat and a defender to match up with those teams’ best players. It would give the Rockets an extra rim protector to help out Howard. The potential problems on offense are undeniable. But if that’s how we lose, I can live with it.
Right now, it remains to be seen if Smith can be acquired. If traded for just Asik, Smith could only be signed to a deal within a percentage above Asik’s $8.3million salary (coming out to roughly $12million.) The problem here is that Smith may be asking for far more than that. Atlanta also just signed Paul Millsap.
If Houston can’t get Smith, I’d prefer they simply hold onto Asik for the time being, despite his alleged protests. His value would seem far too high to just jettison hastily.
The other question is Jeremy Lin, the mercurial talent who, in some odd sense has actually become underrated amongst the Rockets faithful. Perhaps no one on this roster would benefit more from Howard’s presence than Lin as the second year guard, like Harden, specializes in attacking off the pick and roll. But now with aspirations of contention, rather than of mere relevance, is Lin the right man to steer this ship? It’s well documented that he struggles against on-ball pressure (see: the Miami game his rookie year, or last year’s playoffs) and that’s not exactly a weakness from your point guard you can overcome. But on the other hand, the same principle–like with Smith–applies. With what’s available now, Lin is the highest upside option available. It’s not smart to downgrade talent. At still just 24, his ability to attack and create problems for opposing defenses is unquestionable, even by his staunchest detractors. And its undeniable that his shooting accuracy drastically improved as the season progressed. Lin may be a shaky hand but in today’s day and age, you need weapons everywhere. And Lin, for his flaws, is a weapon.
In the coming weeks, Daryl Morey will fill out his roster. He’s already dealt away Royce White, the face for how not to go about bringing awareness for a cause. (That a deal could be struck is fortunate because had White needed to be waived, the team almost certainly would have needed to expend resources in litigating a frivolous ADA claim.) Morey will make decisions on Asik and Lin and fill out other holes on the cheap. But for now, he has his man. Last year, Morey got the first domino. Now it’s complete. With Dwight Howard, the Rockets’ foundation is set.