The Houston Rockets clinched their seventh consecutive playoff berth after last night’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans, which ties two other stretches of appearances for the most in franchise history. It’s a record of consistency and success that Rockets fans primarily owe to their two main franchise cornerstones, Daryl Morey and James Harden.
Morey was brought in in 2007 after the departure of long-time franchise staple Carrol Dawson, and although he oversaw the final hurrah of the Yao-McGrady years, it wasn’t long before Morey was tasked with rebuilding the team following the infamous decline of Houston’s star duo.
While the Rockets would miss the playoffs for three straight seasons from 2010-2012, the Houston GM was developing his “Moreyball” strategy while he waited for the opportunity to grab an ever-elusive superstar. But even though Morey’s vision was unfulfilled without a star player, we saw the beginnings of what we know as his full-fledged philosophy today.
He prized efficiency, bringing in guys like Kevin Martin, who’s three-ball and free throw-heavy game was actually a few years ahead of it’s time, even if Martin wasn’t the guy to fully actualize it, and Morey also had head starts on players like Goran Dragic, Garrett Temple, and Kyle Lowry, even if they wound up finding their greatest success with other teams.
Morey kept the franchise afloat through the three non-playoff years, never suffering a losing record in any of them, never tanking, and always keeping the team competitive despite a slew of mid-first-round draft picks and nothing near the top. He was expertly biding his time until the moment would arrive for a franchise-changing move.
The moment finally came on October 27, 2012, when Morey traded Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for James Harden and filler. Harden was coming off a campaign in which he won Sixth Man of the Year and helped lead the Thunder to the NBA Finals, and as he was about the grow into his physical prime, Morey saw the potential for the superstar he so coveted.
And it was the perfect marriage between player and franchise. Harden wanted a chance to be “the man”, and the Rockets were willing to give him that shot. And their GM’s philosophy of either shooting a three or getting to the bucket and drawing a foul in the process meshed perfectly with Harden’s skill set. And the results were instantaneous.
The Rockets were back in the postseason in Harden’s first year with the club, finishing 45-37, and Harden averaged almost 26 points per game in his first year as a full-time starter. And that was just the tip of the iceberg, as Morey finally had the big gun he desired and could build the ancillary players accordingly.
Even in the ultimately failed Dwight Howard signing, D12 was brought in because of how well he fit next to Harden on paper. Everyone just under-estimated his childishness and overestimated his willingness to run the pick-and-roll. But even the Howard signing, despite dissolving into dysfunction, reached a high-water mark of the Western Conference Finals in 2015.
The Howard situation, despite ending negatively, showed off Morey’s ability to adjust his plan after a failure, as the Houston GM built around The Beard in a different way. First, he brought in head coach Mike D’Antoni. It was a move widely panned by many, including possibly even this website at the time, but Morey proved once again why he’s often the smartest guy in the room and a perfect fit for this franchise.
D’Antoni’s confidence in his players and the freedom he afforded them on the court was another perfect, glove-like fit, and Harden immediately responded to a somewhat controversial (at least nationally) move to point guard with his finest statistical season of his career to that point, averaging 29 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists.
A disappointing loss in the playoffs to the San Antonio Spurs sparked another Morey masterpiece, as he swung a mega-deal in the next offseason for future Hall-of-Fame point guard Chris Paul. With plenty of questions whether CP3 and The Beard could share and share alike one measly ball, the pair instead made beautiful music together, leading the Rockets to a franchise-best 65 wins and were a singular pulled hamstring away from a likely NBA title.
All this time, Harden continued to grow as player, adding more to his game each and every season. He took the criticism of his defense to heart, making drastic improvements to his play on that end, while the addition of Paul as another playmaker gave Harden the freedom to develop the game’s most devastating offensive repertoire. The maturation of Clint Capela (a Morey draft pick) into a pick-and-roll nightmare for the opposition only made Harden that much more effective as a scorer.
The Beard won the 2018 MVP award, but just when you thought it might have been Harden’s pinnacle, he took things to another level this year. We’ve been over his contributions endlessly here at TDS, and I think Conrad pretty much laid it all out for us this weekend, but he’s having the most dominant offensive season we’ve seen in the NBA for decades.
As for Morey, he once again showed an uncanny ability to move on from a failure, essentially wiping clean a failed offseason of Carmelo Anthony, James Ennis, and Michael Carter-Williams and turning them into Danuel House, Austin Rivers, Kenneth Faried, and Iman Shumpert. It was an epic mid-season pivot by the GM, and that along with Harden’s record-setting nightly supernova saved Houston’s season. They now stand on the precipice of a top-three seed in the brutal Western Conference.
It seems extremely silly now, but there were legitimate questions after Houston’s 11-14 start about the direction of this team’s future. New owner Tillman Fertitta was a bit of a wildcard in these matters, but that was laid all to rest after Morey’s expert mid-season maneuvering and Fertitta offering up a deserved five-year extension as a reward.
Morey’s now signed through 2027, while James Harden is on-board until at least 2023. Which is good news for Rockets fans, because Houston is 590-370 (61 percent) since Morey took over as GM last decade (crazy!), and they’re 363-203 (64 percent) since trading for Harden. They’ve exceeded 50 wins in four of Harden’s six seasons, with the same number just three wins away this year with eight games remaining.
This seven-season playoff streak now ties them with the group from 1993-1999 and the group from 1985-1991, coincidentally both involving the last Rockets all-time super-great (sorry Yao and T-Mac, love you both, but you’re not quite on that level).
It can’t be easy living in the shadow of Hakeem Olajuwon, Rudy T, and Les Alexander, but the only thing left for this group to achieve is an NBA title.
They have been close, twice advancing to the Western Conference Finals where they would lose to an all-time great team (certainly no shame in that), and something tells me the championship title part of this story is very, very far from finished. The Rockets have legitimate championship aspirations this year (no one’s playing better ball since the All-Star break), and their key player-GM duo is locked up well into the next decade.
Though with how perfect a fit both of these guys are for the city, the team, the fans, and for each other, I wouldn’t be surprised to see either one of them stay around even longer. Harden loves Houston, and Houston loves The Beard; a case of a city and it’s superstar with legit feelsies for one another.
And of course no one can deny the one indomitable truth we all know as Rockets fans: In Morey We Trust.