In the fallow period for NBA news that is September, one can be forgiven for going a bit stir crazy. It will be some time yet before the much ballyhooed combination of Harden and Howard takes to the court in Rockets red, despite all the feverish anticipation that accompanied the initial signing. The lack of news means that every snippet of information gets analysed for how it impacts the big questions that will dominate the next 9 months: Can Howard and Asik coexist? Will Howard be happy with the number of paint touches? Will we still see the fast-paced spread offence of last season?
The latest snippets to be put under the microscope are the signings of Ronnie Brewer and rumoured interest in Royal Ivey. Perhaps, the line of thinking goes, the overflowing roster (19 contracts on the books, and possibly more to come!) will tip Morey’s hand into making a deal? Maybe this makes it more likely that Asik will be traded with some spare parts for the Power Forward of our dreams. Well I’m here to say that this is just the lack of news talking, and that the number of players the Rockets have under contract has no correlation whatsoever with the likelihood of a trade happening before the start of the season. Read on to find out why.
Daryl Morey has often stated that he wishes there was something akin to a Minor League system in Basketball. Under his tenure, the Rockets’ Front Office has pulled out all the stops to ensure that they have as large a pool of prospects to choose from as possible. They’ve used the D-League as much as they can, they’ve stashed prospects overseas for seasoning, and generally taken a probabilistic approach to acquiring talent – the more players they have access to, the more likely some of them will be good. None of this can quite emulate baseball’s feeder system, but it’s fair to say that the Rockets have done as much as they can to get one in place.
A key element to the ongoing cycle of asset-stockpiling and talent pool expansion is training camp. It is rare for NBA decision makers to get a chance to do a direct comparison between players, especially if some are trying to break through from the D-League while others are scrabbling around trying to stay on the end of the NBA bench. Training camp is that opportunity, the time when the organisation can put players through their paces and get a good luck at how they square up to their counterparts. It is clear that Morey is once again following the principle of maximising the number of options his team has to consider for one of the permanent roster spots available, which makes sense for such a crucial decision-making tool. And with the team having a clear picture of the basic structure of the team for the first time in several seasons, the process of filling in the gaps around the stars on the roster becomes that much more important.
The Rockets are lucky to have an owner who is willing to bankroll the expenditures necessary to make wide-casting net approach happen. I’m sure there are many owners that would baulk at paying guaranteed money to athletes who will never in fact play for the team in an NBA game. But Leslie Alexander seems to recognize the benefits of it and has allowed Morey to pursue this tactic. It could be that this willingness stems from how close it has come to working in the past. The poster child for the NBA diamond in the rough is of course Jeremy Lin, who the Rockets famously had on their training camp roster in 2011 and then let go. In that instance the front office made the wrong decision when they cut him, but the fact that they were in a position to make that decision at all speaks to the efficacy of the process. Keep bringing players through camp, and some of them will show that they deserve a roster spot. All it takes is for the people in charge to figure out which ones they are.
So the Rockets are in the luxurious position of having some choices to make about how to fill out the roster. But what happens if they’ve got too many players they like – won’t Morey be tempted to get on the phone to other GMs and try to work out a deal to make them all fit? The thing is, when you step back and look at the bigger picture it becomes clear that this is a short-sighted way of doing business. A basic tenet of negotiating is that if your prospective trading partner knows you’re desperate to make a deal, you’re not going to get good value. And if Morey gets on the phone towards the end of training camp and tries to swing a trade, you would expect a savvy GM to see that desperation and translate it into a better deal for his team. The Front Office would be allowing its quest for flexibility to hamstring its leverage at the bargaining table. But this is putting the cart before the horse – they should be striving to have flexibility in order to generate an advantage, not sacrificing an advantage to gain flexibility.
Morey has shown excellent patience and judgement while assembling this team and I’m sure he will be aware of this effect. Any key decisions to be made about player transactions, particularly those with such high values like Asik, must be made without allowing the need to trim the roster to cloud his judgement, or they will ultimately result in an inferior deal made too soon and without getting as much in return as possible. It’s not like he won’t be on the phones – by his own admission the organisation is constantly in discussions with other teams on deals of varying shapes and sizes. It’s just that whether or not the roster has 15 or 20 players on it should not make any difference to how those calls play out, and if it does, something is wrong.
Overall the point is this: training camp is important and the Rockets are prioritizing it, but at the end of the day it’s not vital enough to be worth losing value in trades to protect any fruit it bears. At the end of the day it’s just one more thing we’re over-analysing because it’s September and we want our NBA fix.