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The Summer League Scrying Pool

After losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Orlando Summer League championship game, the Rockets have fallen to 33-7 all-time in NBA summer league games. Houston was undefeated until the last of the five games, and sat Greg Smith, Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley for the last one. The Rockets always perform strongly in summer league, which is a meaningless distinction by most reckoning. Summer League games don’t help you win in May, but they may tell us something about the teams involved. Why, then, does Houston do so well in July?

First, an important proviso: Summer League doesn’t tell us much of anything. Many of the players aren’t signed to their respective teams, nor will they ever be. Rookies and Sophomores abound, competing against other similarly fresh players. Recall that Houston had three of the top ten performers during last year’s summer league, and none of them saw extended minutes during the season. Potential and possibility suffuse Orlando and Las Vegas, not skill and ability.

That very warning serves as a promise for Houston. When victors are decided by potential and system, teams with a steadfast and proven system will shine through. It’s no coincidence that Houston and Oklahoma City met in the finals. Both teams have been rife with young, high upside players, and both are known for willingness to acquire and develop potential. A strong showing in Orlando is a sign of something larger, that Houston has in spades.

General Manager Daryl Morey’s ability to identify and unearth hidden gems is one of his best-known qualities among the NBA commentariat. He plucks starting-caliber talent out of the second round regularly. He signs two-way players to movable, reasonable contracts. He consistently flips players for younger, more efficient versions. It’s this ability to evaluate ability within a system that helped him assemble a successful roster around Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady in 2009. It’s this same ability that helped him leverage that leftover roster into two superstars three years later. It’s also a major reason why Houston’s so good in Summer League.

Not only does the Rockets front office have an ability to find talent in the vast sea of players to choose from, Houston’s also practiced at running a farm system. The Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Houston’s NBA D-League affiliate, may not seem germane to summer league or an NBA championship, but it serves as yet another pillar of Houston’s long-term plans. In 2009 the Vipers became the first D-League team to use the so-called “hybrid model.” They may not control the business end of the Vipers, but the Rockets instituted their own coaching and basketball system. Houston has always been very active in their use of the D-League, assigning the vast majority of rookies for extended stints in the valley.

This familiarity with bringing new players and coaches into an existing system allows Houston to not only scout high-upside players, but to quickly ready them for play in Houston’s offense. The offensive and defensive schemes may change from year to year, but the planning to institute those schemes is consistent. Players in any level of the Rockets’ basketball penumbra are prepared to play at the highest level possible. It’s no coincidence that Houston was on the Vanguard of teams taking control over D-League teams, a trend which about half the league has followed them on.

Daryl Morey’s reign over the Rockets has been one devoted to victory at all levels, at all costs. The Rockets have ruthlessly cut and traded players to get key assets. Players are flatly denied early extensions on contracts in order to preserve financial freedom. Bruised egos and hurt feelings mean nothing to a team that seems hell-bent on a championship. That pursuit of victory bleeds to the D-League, where the Valley Vipers have won two championships since the Rockets took control of their basketball operations. The latest result of that laser-like focus is a 33-7 record in Summer League, with the only loss this season coming in the championship round.

The only question then is why Houston’s best Summer League players sat out the game against the Thunder. For a team that develops talent and induces victory even at lower levels of competition, what sense did it make to effectively surrender a game, and the championship game at that? The simple answer is that developing and evaluating talent was more important. With Tyler Honeycutt as the most recognizable name on Houston’s roster, the Rockets didn’t need victory. What they needed was a better idea of how talented their bench’s bench’s bench was.

Why does any of this matter for the Rockets? The chances that Vitalis Chikoko will help the Rockets win a championship are almost astronomically small. A strong Summer League showing means nothing for NBA action. The point is that no chance is too small, and a habit of exhaustive talent searching and development is even more important. The Rockets win in Summer League because they take it a little too seriously. Houston’s slavish devotion to scouting pays dividends far down the line; a 33-7 record in Summer League is just a pleasant side-effect.

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