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History in Hindsight: A look back at the “basketball reasons” trade and the Rockets, Part I.

“This is an absolute disaster for the Rockets who now, after having gone all in, are left with some pissed off players.  The dream of a Gasol/Nene frontcourt is now gone and we’re back to the drawing board.

Worst of all is that Les won’t let this team tank.”

–  Rahat Huq, December 10, 2011.

It may be less than two and a half years since that December day, when a trade that was supposed to send Chris Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol to the Rockets, and Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, and some nobody backup point guard named Goran Dragic to the New Orleans was cancelled by the NBA, but the “basketball reasons” trade both then and in hindsight is one of the most important moments in NBA history.  Only LeBron’s Decision and the Shaq/Kobe feud really have a claim to be even more important in this century.

But so much of the discussion about the trade is about what it meant to the Lakers.  The Lakers could have gotten Chris Paul while still keeping Andrew Bynum, the trade chip which they would use to grab Dwight Howard.  With Paul and Howard, the Lakers would transition straight from the Kobe-Pau years to another era of championships without the slightest bump – or that is how the story is told from Los Angeles’s perspective.  But what did “basketball reasons” mean to Houston?  Before it all happened, in the aftermath of the trade’s announcement, and then after when the news of it being cancelled were announced?

What newer Rockets fans may not know, and older ones may not remember, is the “but” that you always heard whenever you talked about Daryl Morey.

“Sure, Daryl Morey can pick some good players late in the draft like Carl Landry and Chase Budinger (and while Morey had just drafted Chandler Parsons, no one expected him to be Morey’s best pick of all), and he can find role players for cheap, and he can execute some nifty trades…but is he really the type who can get a star?  Isn’t he just spinning wheels?  I mean, you can’t expect some moneyball geek to be appealing to free agents, right?”

Houston’s pursuit of Bosh in 2010 had been a disaster, the Denver Nuggets had had no intention of sending Carmelo Anthony to a Western Conference rival before they shipped him off to New York, and while Houston had been wooing Chris Paul, the superstar point guard was clearly not interested.  And if Houston’s failure to get a star wasn’t bad enough, Yao Ming had just retired four months ago.  Houston had built their 2010-11 team to compliment Yao, hoping that the giant could go one last time.  But Yao lasted 5 games, and now the Rockets were stuck with a bunch of veterans and few high potential prospects – all in a shortened offseason courtesy of the 2011 lockout.  So what was to be done? Some were proponents of bottoming out and tanking.  Given that Morey has talked of the value of high draft picks in the past, as well as the fact that his protégé Sam Hinkie has promptly taken the Philadelphia 76ers on a path towards a potential #1 pick over this season, there is no doubt that he considered it.  But he ultimately chose a different strategy, that of asset gathering for a trade.  It worked out incredibly well for Houston, but at the time, whether it could work was a matter of huge uncertainty.

You have to remember when we look back on that trade about how good Pau Gasol was at that time.  We forget that as the Lakers spiral ever downwards this season, but in 2011, he had made the All-NBA 2nd team only behind Durant and LeBron.  He may have been 31 years old – but he was a big man with skill, and they generally age gracefully.  Hakeem was 32 when he had destroyed David Robinson.  Dirk Nowitzki had just won a championship at 33. And who was Houston giving up for this All-NBA 2nd team player?  Scola, who as lovable as he was, was struggling more and more on defense, especially in comparison to the new and athletic Patrick Patterson?  Martin, who always struggled in the 4th and couldn’t guard anyone?  Or Dragic, who had had a nice playoff series against San Antonio in 2010, but had done nothing impressive since then and was clearly just a backup point guard?

That’s not to say that there were no concerns when the trade was announced.  There were concerns about the value – sure Gasol had made the All-NBA team, but he had just been destroyed by Dirk in the playoffs.  There were concerns about facilitating the next Lakers dynasty.  But the big concern was about the direction that the Rockets were going to take.  Could Houston really win a title with Pau Gasol as their best player?  Someone who had never won a single playoff game as the number one option in Memphis? Was it really worth trying to build around someone that old?

These concerns were somewhat alleviated when news began to circulate that Nene might leave the Nuggets to join the Houston Rockets.  Neither Nene nor Pau Gasol could be argued to be the best big man in the NBA – but the two combined, so the idea went, would have made for the single best frontcourt in the entire NBA.  In a league where the skilled big man was declining, to have two basically 7 footers, both of whom could shoot and finish?  Combine that with Lowry at the point guard, and shooters like Courtney Lee and Chase Budinger on the wings, and good old Chuck Hayes backing up Nene and Gasol, and the team that was being proposed had potential.  Would it be a title favorite?  Well, John Hollinger declared that said team had the potential to be the #1 seed, and as Rahat observed,

“You look around at the West right now and one thing that is immediately apparent is that it is weaker than ever.  Dallas will take a huge step back losing Chandler.  Roy and Portland are finished as are the Spurs.  The Jazz are rebuilding.  The Clippers probably aren’t ready yet for prime-time.  Memphis is constructed the same as we would have been.  The Lakers, without Dwight Howard, don’t scare me, Chris Paul or not.  Only the Thunder really stand out to you as a clear-cut favorite.  You have to believe that in landing Nene and Gasol, you’re right there in the mix for one of the top seeds for the next few years.”

With the benefit of hindsight, we know how that foolish that was.  The Spurs continued to do their thing.  The Thunder jumped faster than everyone expected.  And Pau Gasol and Nene were already at the height of their careers.  Gasol would never again make an All-NBA team, and Nene’s PER has declined ever since even ignoring his frequent injuries.  But Houston fans had already been to get used to the idea of a dominant frontcourt – and it was at that moment, when the dream began to grow, that David Stern and 28 NBA owners got together to stomp it down.

To be continued later this afternoon.

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About the author: The son of transplants to Houston, Paul McGuire is now a transplant in Washington D.C. The Stockton shot is one of his earliest memories, which has undoubtedly contributed to his lack of belief in the goodness of man.

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