The Houston Rockets Trading Sequence: A Link to the Past

The Houston Rockets didn’t tank. They didn’t get better through the draft like the Oklahoma City Thunder did, and they didn’t pile in a group of free agents like the Miami Heat did. The Rockets traded up, incrementally, every year. They kept right on trading, even when nobody saw an end to the string of moves. What did Houston get out of the deal? James Harden, Dwight Howard, and national relevance. General manager Daryl Morey may have executed a trade sequence with skill, but he wasn’t the first to do it. In fact, millions of people worldwide have done it since 1998.

As Jordan was winning his sixth ring and the nineties were rounding to a close, Nintendo was developing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It hit stores at the end of the year and has subsequently sold more than seven million copies. The fact that you play as a sword-swinging time-traveling boy named Link (or, technically, whatever you type in at the start of the game) isn’t germane to the Houston Rockets of 2013. What does matter are the sequences of trades that are necessary to gain some of the most important items in the game. Ocarina certainly wasn’t the first game in the series, and it didn’t originate the tradition of trade sequences, but it was through this N64 outing that millions of people got a tiny taste of what Morey has been working on for years.

At one point in the game, the player is allowed to buy a new sword. The Master Sword, a blade with dominion over time and the ability to vanquish evil that spans eons, is nice and all, but the Giant’s Knife you can buy is bigger. It takes two hands, it’s much longer, and it does twice as much damage. In fact, it seems too good to be true, but at a pittance of 200 rupees, how can you go wrong? As it turns out, very easily. The Giant’s Knife looks nice but is of the lowest quality imaginable. After a few hits, the blade shatters into pieces.

In the summer of 2009, Daryl Morey bought a Giant’s Knife. He was backed into it by the loss of his previous arsenal. Yao Ming was just beginning to treat a foot injury which would eventually prove insurmountable. The Rockets needed a weapon of some kind, and a young man on the Los Angeles Lakers seemed to offer a spark of hope. Maybe Trevor Ariza can grow into something spectacular? Like the Giant’s Knife, Ariza was a temporary fix at best. He didn’t mesh with the team and was hastily traded away at the end of the season. That didn’t work. What next?

There are a few options at this point. The truly masochistic can go back and spend more money, buying a very slightly tougher knife, but that’s prohibitively expensive. If you have endless pockets and only need quality for a little while, you can do this. But that’s not the Rockets way perhaps some teams can thrive by habitually overpaying players and finding greats at the end of their careers. But going back to a shoddy smith over and over is no long term solution, not in Houston.

Many teams and many players fall back on the default option. High-risk moves are innately scary, and it’s easier just to pull the Master Sword back out, use a shield, and accept being standard. Hey, with a one-handed sword, you get a shield to hold in the other. That added defensive capability counts for a lot, right? There’s nothing wrong with using tried and true tactics. There’s nothing innately flawed with trying to be solid if unexceptional. The enemies are fought, some games are won, and the risk is low. But once again, staying in the middle of the pack isn’t owner Leslie Alexander’s way. He had a taste of championship victory, and the only option that made sense to him was more victory.

The adventurous, obsessed, driven player is given a third option. You don’t have to buy your way to power or bargain yourself into mediocrity. You can go full-bore into a path that has no real incremental rewards, a high degree of challenge, myriad failures and tribulations, but an end result that’s the best option of all. If you find the right, unassuming person to interact with you can turn time, effort and dedication into a sword that won’t ever break. A long-term solution on offense that’s top of the line. You can get the Biggoron’s Sword.

All link has to begin with is a tiny cucco (or chicken, as we Earthlings call them) egg, handed off by its previous owner. As previous general manager Carroll Dawson handed Morey Tracy McGrady and Rafer Alston, Link receives the “Pocket Egg.” After a sunrise, the egg will hatch into a “Pocket Cucco,” a blue chicken of no seeming value. But like McGrady’s shattered joints turned him into a treasure for the right team, this shattered egg gives Link something valuable. There’s a man in the woods who simply needs to wake up, and the chicken’s crowing is invaluable to him. The New York Knicks, on the other hand, desperately needed cap space to fit LeBron James into the following summer. Both the Knicks and Grog, the man in the woods, meet a grisly fate. The Knicks whiffed on LeBron, and Grog reportedly becomes a skeleton. Link and Morey are unmoved. There are more trades to make.

Link now has an odd mushroom, something which might look useful, but is so unrefined as to be frustrating. Link takes the mushroom to an Old Hag who can make a healing salve out of it while Morey took Rafer Alston to the trading block to turn into Kyle Lowry. Both, however, end up as wasted effort. The man who needed the potion has disappeared, while Kyle Lowry eventually became frustrated with his team. Not to be stymied, Morey traded Lowry to the Raptors for the peculiar prize of a draft pick that’s protected only if it misses the lottery (or hit the very top of it). Link also gets a curious and seemingly inferior haul: a saw.

Link’s plan, then, is to find someone who needs a workmanlike implement, and is willing to give up something good for it. To this end, he streaks off to the carpenters who are building a bridge at the western end of the world. They’ve been working on the bridge for years, and all they have is a mishmash of tools that don’t make sense. Link offers their leader a trusty, durable saw. The foreman gives up a broken sword, the first meaningful piece on the journey. Morey, Carl Landry in hand, offered the rebuilding Sacramento Kings just the tool they wanted. The return was Kevin Martin, a player known for being broken, but as an offensive powerhouse when whole.

Kevin Martin was only a shadow of the eventual prize. A broken sword isn’t a difficult commodity to come buy. But with the right incentives, a broken sword can turn into a the real thing. All that was left for Morey was to keep finding goods to sweeten the pot. Link, in the land of Hyrule, discovers his price as well. Biggoron, the giant who forged the original sword, hands him a prescription for eye drops, a bounty for Biggoron’s aid. Link sets to work finding the necessary salves as the Rockets had assembled a suite of useful assets. Jordan Hill, a prospect from the Tracy McGrady trade, quietly turned into a draft pick (and Derek Fisher, who would immediately be waived). This pick was from the Mavericks by way of the Lakers, and remains protected to this day. It was still an asset to be used, and set a precedent for the haul that would complete the sequence.

In return for the prescription, Link is handed an “Eyeball Frog,” another piece which must be ground up and mixed to be useful. Morey had a similar concoction: a lackluster 14th pick in the draft and Samuel Dalembert. Link is given a deadline of the medicine crafted from the frog. The eye drops that are somehow boiled out of the amphibian must be moved quickly, before the expiry date on the bottle. Morey faced a similar dilemma. Draft day was approaching, and it was imperative to move up in the draft to grab a better player. The Bucks accepted Houston’s hurried deal, gaining Dalembert and the 14th pick while giving the Rockets the 12th pick. That 12th overall pick would turn into Jeremy Lamb, the final piece of the puzzle, much as Link receives a sword claim slip from a grateful Biggoron.

With claim slip in hand, all Link need do is wait for the sword to be ready. It is said to take a few days, but Link has a way around that seeming eternity. Using a magic Ocarina (the eponymous Ocarina of Time), he can fast-forward the timetables, turning the sum total of his work into a shiny new sword in mere moments. This is the last sword he’ll ever need, and it assures that with work, he can vanquish any foe.

Morey was sitting on a gold mine during the summer of 2012. He had Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, Toronto’s first round pick, and a future pick from the Mavericks. He had more to boot, but these were the pieces he’d need. All he had to do was wait until his prize was ready. The Rockets didn’t know when that would be, and most people thought it would take forever. The Oklahoma City Thunder played the part of the Ocarina of Time, suddenly accelerating Houston’s plans. The Rockets had claimed their prize: James Harden, the Biggoron’s Sword.

A sword is just a tool, however, and Link needs more treasures to complete his quest. The Biggoron’s sword is a prize, but also a path to greater success. More treasures exist past mighty foes, and LInk needs a sword to slay those foes. Morey, for his part, needed Harden to slay the foe of irrelevance. An equally great treasure awaited in the form of Dwight Howard. The Rockets may get credit for the shorter but more immediate path to Howard, but that battle was only winnable after the quest for Harden. Much like Link needed to work hard at seemingly arbitrary tasks to gain his sword, Morey had to toil in seeming failure to gain his.

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