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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Total comments: 10
  • rocketrick says 6 months ago It seems better years are ahead if you believe in the Rockets
  • SadLakerFan says 6 months ago

    "(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."

    Very important trade in Clippers history. Actually, Minnesota traded both the first round pick and Sam Cassell, to the Clippers for Jaric. Cassell nearly led the Clippers to the Western Conf. Finals, and that 1st round pick was critical in the Chris Paul trade. Jaric was barely passable in Minnesota. McHale had two good years in Minnesota - 1995, when he drafted KG and hired Flip Saunders, and 2008 when he traded to Kevin Love. Every year in between was a disaster.


    Actually, perhaps not all disasters, but take as a whole, 13 not good years.
  • SadLakerFan says 6 months ago

    "(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."

    Very important trade in Clippers history. Actually, Minnesota traded both the first round pick and Sam Cassell, to the Clippers for Jaric. Cassell nearly led the Clippers to the Western Conf. Finals, and that 1st round pick was critical in the Chris Paul trade. Jaric was barely passable in Minnesota. McHale had two good years in Minnesota - 1995, when he drafted KG and hired Flip Saunders, and 2008 when he traded to Kevin Love. Every year in between was a disaster.

  • rocketrick says 6 months ago At the time, Nene and Gasol did sound great, compared to running Chuck Hayes out there as our starting 5.

    As it turns out, both Nene and Gasol have had some injuries since then costing a number of missed games.

    In the end, I agree with Rahat, the Lakers were the ones that really got screwed by David Stern. It sure turned out much better than anticipated for the Rockets although at the time it was certainly a downer for us, too.
  • Rahat Huq says 6 months ago

    Nene and Gasol, at full health, would have been sick. Virtually unguardable for any other West frontcourt.

    Crazy to think about this from the Lakers' angle. Really got screwed.

  • Red94 says 6 months ago New post: History in Hindsight: A look back at the “basketball reasons” trade and the Rockets, Part II.
    By: Paul McGuire

    “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.

  • rocketrick says 6 months ago

    New post: History in Hindsight: A look back at the "basketball reasons" trade and the Rockets, Part I.
    By: Paul McGuire


    “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.


    Thankfully for the Rockets those are distant memories now!

    Although I remember at the time that there was a lot of talk about the Rockets tanking to rebuild similar to what Philadelphia is in the process of doing now, as a season ticket holder I am very happy that Alexander and the Rockets chose a different path. No way would I (and I suspect a large number) of season ticket holders going to continue to renew their tickets to watch a cellar dweller for a couple of seasons. I think that's the part that a lot of Rockets fans miss in their analysis at the time. The NBA is a great pastime for their fans, but for the people running the teams, it's a business, too.

    I look forward to seeing how Philadelphia ends up as they are going the route that so many in Houston wanted the Rockets to take. One advantage Philadelphia has currently is being in the weaker Conference so their rebuild can possibly happen with their young team getting the necessary playoff experience, although likely first round fodder if they even make it. The West is so competitive that I think the Rockets would have continued to struggle just to get into the playoffs for several seasons after the rebuild were they to go the route of tanking.

    This is obviously pure speculation. Since the Rockets chose a different path that appears to have been the better path, we'll never know. But seeing how things go in Philadelphia the next few seasons will give some indication.
  • SadLakerFan says 6 months ago

    Don't forget that NO also got a first round pick from Houston, so they might have landed Royce White.

    At the end of the day, it worked out well for NO, which may not have wins, but is exciting and has great potential. It obviously worked out well for Houston, and was terrible for LA. Bad memories.

  • Steven says 6 months ago It truely was a sad day when Czar Stern shot down the Rockets trade. But everything happens for a reason.
  • NorEastern says 6 months ago

    Nice recap. Brings back some not so pleasant memories though.