“If a good trade is, as the cliché goes, one in which everyone wins, David Stern stepped in and with one overbearing, heavy-handed swipe, turned the Rockets’ three-team deal Thursday into one in which everyone loses.
Actually, that might not be quite right. Donald Sterling won.
Stern’s NBA owns the New Orleans Hornets. No longer, after a long reign, can Sterling be considered the league’s worst owner.”
– Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, December 9, 2011.
You really could not believe it when the news of the trade’s cancellation broke. When the rumors first began to show up, I remember dismissing it as yet another example of Dan Gilbert whining as the Cleveland Cavaliers stared at yet another lottery season with probable bust Kyrie Irving, or fans of other teams panicking about the new Lakers dynasty. But then rumor turned into news, and the news turned into an official announcement – one which left New Orleans, Houston, and the Lakers up a creek without a paddle.
Well, not totally. The NBA emphasized that while the trade in its current format was dead, it would be willing to accept a new idea provided that the Hornets received even more young prospects. But was that a sincere statement, or was it the standard negotiation tactic of indirectly saying no by putting a price so high on an item that the other side can’t match it? And which new prospects? Would the Rockets go so far as to have to include – gasp – Terrence Williams, who Houston fans hoped would have a breakout season under new coach Kevin McHale?
So everyone waited. And as the Houston Rockets waited, Chuck Hayes and Nene moved on to sign other deals with other teams, thus killing the dream of the best frontcourt in the NBA. A new deal was submitted, which did not include any new Houston players. But the NBA rejected it, demanded more, and the Lakers chose to pull out and give up on the dreams of grabbing Chris Paul. In the meantime, the Clippers waited in the wings and began to negotiate for Paul. There was more of Stern and the NBA’s demand for a king’s ransom for Chris Paul as the Clippers and Hornets fought over the inclusion of Eric Gordon, who at the time was viewed as the single best young SG prospect in the league, and not some bearded third wheel out in Oklahoma City. But the Clippers finally caved, and sent Eric Gordon along with some other assets for the best point guard in the league.
(One of the amusing facts about that final trade: In 2006, the Clippers and the Minnesota Timberwolves, led by GM Kevin McHale, completed a trade which sent Marko Jaric (who? Exactly) to Minnesota in exchange for a first round pick. Given Minnesota’s track record of incompetence, that pick for many years was tossed about as a highly prized asset, one that was sure to bring in a star, and the Clippers giving that pick and spare parts was felt to be good enough for Chris Paul. That highly prized pick? It was the 10th pick in the 2012 draft and grabbed Austin Rivers, who hasn’t exactly been a world beater. If anything shows the difficulties of trading first round picks…)
But what about the Rockets? The Lakers rebounded from this defeat, and went on to pursue Dwight Howard and the third best record in the Western Conference that season. Houston in the meantime was left holding the bag, and thus shambled on during the 2011-12 season and the 14th pick for a third straight year. Luis Scola continued to be the good soldier, but Kevin Martin visibly sulked and missed the last twenty games with a minor injury. Dragic broke out to be more than just some backup in the second half, but when Kyle Lowry returned from a bacterial infection, the locker room was thrown into chaos, Houston collapsed down the stretch, and Dragic departed for the Phoenix Suns.
But worse than that collapse was the knowledge that there was no real plan this time. Sure, Houston moved on to pursuing Dwight Howard – but if Dwight wanted to just be some franchise star without a lot of help, why would he leave Orlando at all? He was almost certainly going to be a Laker sooner or later. And even if Houston hadn’t collapsed down the stretch and made the playoffs, what good was it to make the 7th or 8th seed and get stomped by San Antonio or OKC in four games? Unlike the 2013 Rockets, the 2012 Rockets were not a young squad full of potential – they were filled with veterans, none of whom were star players, half of whom would not be around next year.
Ever since Yao Ming had limped off the court during that 2009 playoff series against the Lakers, Daryl Morey had searched for three years for a star to replace him. And he had failed. It was time to rebuild and for Houston to go back to the high lottery for the first time since 2006. Rockets executives had said in the aftermath of deal’s rejection that “they set us back three years with this.” And given the weaknesses of the 2013 draft class and the new Houston slogan of rebuilding, Houston finished disappointed and defeated.
Of course, we know what happened. Things turned out rather well in the end for Houston and New Orleans, while the Lakers remain embittered by their failed chances for yet another dynasty in their impressive history. But even though this article was about the Rockets, I would like to point out one point about this trade regarding the then New Orleans Hornets, and today the Pelicans.
The new trade that New Orleans made with the Clippers was not made with value in mind. It was made, much like the famous Pau Gasol trade between Memphis and the Lakers, so that one team could just tank the season for a high lottery pick. And it worked out brilliantly for New Orleans, who ended up with the most important young player in the league today in Anthony Davis.
But New Orleans had had only a 13% chance of getting Davis. And with how Goran Dragic has utterly blown up this season ( so much so that in their last Birdmester, Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose had legitimately discussed putting Dragic on the All-NBA 1st Team – and this was before he dumped a career-high 35 points on the Rockets), you can’t help but wonder. If you knew what you knew today, and had a certainty of Dragic behind one door, and a 13% chance at Anthony Davis behind the other and a more ordinary player like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Thomas Robinson if you didn’t get the bounce of the lottery ball…which would you choose?
There is no right and wrong to that question. But if any moment shows that so much of managing a team is dependent on the whims of fortune, it was this failed trade. A trade rejection which seemed to condemn the Rockets to the whims of lottery balls…and instead paved the road to the great team that Morey has created today.