In the last few months, former media darling Daryl Morey has come under a lot of fire for the decisions he's made. Despite mediocre results the past few seasons, Morey had at the very least brought together a scrappy mix of young players and wily veterans to form a squad that at the very least challenged good teams on any given night. And then, despite vowing to retain most of the previous years squad, he began tearing down the roster, trading the bulk of his rotation and allowing Goran Dragic to go in free agency.
Some were quick to criticize Morey, claiming that moves like that impede the progress he's made over the past few years. However, they were all part of a surgical plan to rebuild this roster, a plan that follows the mandate that Les Alexander has given Daryl Morey to assemble a championship roster as quickly as possible. As has proven to be abundantly clear the last three years, a championship roster requires at least one centerpiece, a superstar that can take over games and carry a team.
Before he went down with his final foot injury, Yao Ming was that man. Given the lack of other major assets to acquire a star, the Rockets were forced to rely on Yao to be the centerpiece, even if it was unlikely that he would stay healthy long term. With that in mind, the Rockets traded Rudy Gay for Shane Battier, Donte Greene and a future 1st (Omri Casspi) for Ron Artest, and acquired Kevin Martin to be Yao's new running mate.
Still in the Yao Ming era, they would extend Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry, with the hope that both could play huge roles in supporting Yao in the middle. With Yao in the picture, rebuilding was not an option. His legs were a ticking time bomb that could go off at any time (they unfortunately went off too soon), and the Rockets had little choice but to try and capitalize when they could on Yao.
When Yao suffered his final stress fracture and it became clear that he would likely never play again for the Rockets, every move the Rockets made was to preserve flexibility and find the next star, as was the prudent course. Some say that Morey perpetuated the cycle of mediocrity by refusing to trade all his veterans, but that ignores some important factors.
Though the "blow it up and rebuild" strategy has been a formula used by many teams to build championship contenders, that strategy ignores the "as fast as possible" part of the mandate from Les Alexander. If Morey could acquire a star player or two, taking two or three years to assemble a roster around them might be too long.
However, while the Rockets had traditionally retained veterans or found replacements in free agency, that year introduced a new philosophy for the club, a slow paring down of the roster. Instead of giving bloated contracts to role players, the Rockets opted to trade Shane Battier and Aaron Brooks for draft picks, Goran Dragic, and Hasheem Thabeet, getting return on future free agents without sacrificing major flexibility. That same off-season, the Rockets allowed Chuck Hayes to go to Sacramento on a four year deal totaling over $22 million.
Though a full-on rebuild was not in order, every move Morey made was meant to keep the Rockets in a position to be be fully equipped in their pursuit of a star. Last December, Morey nearly pulled it off. However, after the trade was vetoed, Morey went about his business, continuing to scour the trade market for another star player.
On the day of the trade deadline, he was barely thwarted again, agreeing in principle to a deal to acquire Dwight Howard before Howard scuttled the trade by staying in Orlando for another season.
Since then, Morey has continued to move the Rockets to the best position possible, whether they acquire Howard or not. By trading Lowry, Budinger, Dalembert, Camby, and Lee while waiving Luis Scola, the Rockets have disposed of replaceable veterans (Lowry perhaps excluded), and completely revamped the roster. The result?
The Rockets are now one of the youngest and most flexible rosters in the NBA. If the Rockets are so inclined, they can certainly build an offer capable of knocking the Magic over and renting Howard on a one year deal. If not, they can try and facilitate a Howard move to Los Angeles, netting themselves Andrew Bynum in the process. Or perhaps they can simply run with the young roster and rebuild the traditional way.
Gone are the days when Rockets fans wonder about whether Morey would acquire Kevin Martin, Andre Iguodala, or Monta Ellis at the trade deadline. Morey has truly decided to go big or go home, and has positioned himself to where both outcomes are favorable.
Yes, Morey is not perfect. His inability to land a star player has been frustrating to fans and his constant tinkering with the roster leaves something to be desired. But to say that he is a naive man without a plan would be ridiculous. Every move he has made traces back to Yao's presence or lack thereof. When Yao was around, Morey had to make decisions that delayed rebuilding by retaining veterans and trading draft picks. Without Yao, the Rockets have slowly shed contracts and players in pursuit of another star player. At the very least, the team will no longer be stuck in the middle.
The bottom line is that Morey has had a successful off-season as a GM. There is no doubt that the collection of draft picks and players that is called the Houston Rockets is closer to being a championship contender now than they were three months ago. So when the talking heads make their yearly off-season losers column, it's time that the Rockets are left off it.
Jump for your links!
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