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Monday Morning Thoughts: The Rockets And Astros Race To Houston Relevance


A few weeks ago, Randy Harvey set out to answer a very simple question: Will the Rockets or Astros be more successful in rebuilding? With the answers to a few questions, Harvey came to the conclusion that because Morey has an easier task as an NBA GM with a team closer to contention, Morey will likely be more successful. Was he right? Let's set out on a journey of our own.

Harvey's first argument was that rebuilding in the NBA is easier than MLB:

In the NBA, barring injuries or other unforseen circumstances, you need eight good players, including a couple of really good players. In MLB, barring injuries or other unforseen [sic] circumstances, you need 18 to 20 good players and really good players up the middle and at the corners and in the bullpen.

These are all facts, and on the face that does make it seem like Morey has a much easier job. What Harvey ignores in his calculation is the scarcity of star players in the NBA. In baseball, a number of star players become free agents every winter, and without max contracts all it takes is a heavy handed owner to bring in a star. For example, if Jim Crane wanted to make a splash, he could easily add Josh Hamilton and Zach Greinke this winter simply by outbidding the competition.

At the same time, more stars hit the trade market in baseball every summer. Each year, at least two to three star players are moved in baseball while it's rare to see more than one in the NBA. On top of that, the prices for star players are much lower. The Braves acquired one of the five best position players in baseball (in terms of WAR) last summer from the Astros in exchange for a pair of mid-level pitching prospects and a consistently disappointing center fielder with a pot-smoking problem. Other packages for star players have been similarly lacking.

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The other thing, as Morey has always contended, is that Major League teams have a vast minor league system at their disposal to stockpile prospects. In an ideal world, Morey would have 20 young players under team control on his D-League team that he could call up at any time while also protecting them from other teams. If the NBA went to an affiliate model, Jeremy Lin perhaps would not have been a Knick last year.

On the other side of the coin, the Astros take fliers on kids everyday. Jose Altuve was signed to an insignificant free agent deal as a 17 year old out of Venezuela and has been the team's best player this season. Lucas Harrell? A waiver wire claim that they had space for on their 40 man roster has been the team's top starter. Bud Norris? A sixth round pick. Because the Astros have over 200 roster spots below the major league level, they can take these insignificant risks that occasionally pan out.

So, no, I don't think that Morey has the easier situation being the NBA. The fact that all you need to compete is about two star players is a nice thought, but that analysis is blind to the fact that there are 30 teams and about 15 players that you can call stars, most of which play in Los Angeles, Miami, or New York.

Next, Harvey discusses the ownership.

Leslie Alexander has proved he will spend money on the Rockets. He has committed $50 million within the last week to one player who might be a star, Jeremy Lin, and another, Omer Asik, who, well, fills up a lot of space around the basket. Alexander also hasn't shut down the talk that the Rockets might have another big move to make. Jim Crane hasn't been with the team long enough for us to know how much money or freedom he's going to give Luhnow to fill the gaping holes in the Astros. But we do know he doesn't like losing.

Les certainly has proven he's willing to spend if the team is a contender. But, if you remember just a couple of years back, Uncle Drayton was all too eager to give out $100 million to Carlos Lee and $12.5 million to Woody Williams on the same day. Les is not on that level, but it's unfair to evaluate an owner simply on the size of his pocketbook.

I don't want to be too harsh to Les as he's done a great deal for Houston, but you do get the sense that he's been keeping Morey back from doing what he's really wanted to do. It's unfair to judge any moves Morey made before the Rockets knew Yao's career was over in the lens of today's situation, but after 2010, it seems like Les has been holding the Rockets back from committing fully to a rebuild.

Perhaps having no ties to any of the Astros helped in this, but Jim Crane has allowed Jeff Luhnow to do his job by stripping this roster down to its bare parts and infusing the Astros' system with talented young players. The on-field product is horrible, but the Astros have gone from signing burnt out veterans to stock the minor leagues to struggling to find a place for all their prospects in the seven affiliate clubs.

Crane has talked about upping the payroll to past levels when the team begins churning out talent again, but it's hard to say how much he'll spend without seeing him in action yet. However, the early returns are good in the Crane era.

Finally, Harvey's conclusion:

For now, my bet is on Morey simply because the Rockets are already closer to at least making the playoffs and it's easier to take the next step in the NBA than it is in MLB. But it's going to take a long time before we're talking about either being a legitimate contender.

Here's where I disagree most heavily. The Rockets proximity to playoff contention means nothing in terms of their future as a franchise, as the vast majority of the players on the roster are not going to be Rockets next time they are contenders. I love Jeremy Lamb, Donatas Motiejunas, Royce White, and Terrence Jones' potential, but they look much more like "nice pieces" than foundational players.

The Astros have fallen on some bad times for their major league club, but the losses has allowed them to add Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr. to their farm system, a young shortstop that looks like a future silver slugger and a live arm that could anchor the rotation for years. And next year, with the top pick once again, they could add another uber-prospect to a deep system.

The Astros have had no qualms about losing for the sake of losing, and that is why Luhnow is more likely to have a more successful team in five years. That's why I disagree with Harvey's conclusion.

At the end of the day, there is something that can be said for the Rockets' approach. As analysts of the game, we're constantly looking forward, trying to predict what is the best thing for the franchise's future. At the same time, we're just fans, and we do have to acknowledge that there is value in knowing your team has a chance to win on any given night. If we're constantly looking forward to imagine some ideal future, are we ever going to appreciate the value of the game now? Is punting three years worth it for the potential of a great five year stretch?

For some of you, the answer to that question is almost assuredly yes. Die-hards like most regular readers of this blog will be able to enjoy three years of bad basketball because they can find value in watching Donatas Motiejunas slowly mature, Jeremy Lamb hitting jumpers or Kevin Martin score 20 a night Royce White picking up triple-doubles, even if they're in losing efforts. But for the other fans? The people that get tickets through work, take their kids on an occasional family outing to the Toyota Center, or bring a girlfriend out to see the Rockets on a date aren't likely to want to see a 20 win team.

Taking one look at the Astros horrific attendance figures would tell you a little bit about that. Anyone who tells you that the last two years haven't done significant damage to the Astros brand is extremely naive.

A lot of the fans will come back when the Astros are good again, but what about the kid who never was exposed to the Astros because his parents decided not to take him to the ballpark with the threat of winning is so minor? Or the expatriate who adopts his current city's team because he couldn't take anymore losing? These losses add up, and can hurt a franchise in the long run.

So yes, the Astros are likely to have the better team in Houston in five years. Ignoring the path to that team is unfair to both Morey and the Rockets organization.