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No smooth transition for new Rockets GM Rafael Stone

Nothing but problems from day one.

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NBA: Playoffs-Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Lakers
There are no pictures on our image service of Rafa Stone. So here’s Westbrook, complaining about something.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A controversial figure departs. A promising leader takes on a tough new role. There are problems everywhere, however. There is either open revolt, or, more likely, carefully placed parcels of dissatisfaction, disinformation, swirling mostly around one prominent person, to contend with almost immediately.

Welcome to the first weeks on the job for new Rockets GM Rafael Stone.

Stone seems an affable fellow, judging by his lightly-followed Twitter account ( @rafaelstone12 ). He’s got quite a hard row to hoe, just now, though. The Rockets season didn’t end well, as apparently any season that isn’t an NBA Western Conference Finals can’t really be judged as any sort of success with James Harden on the team.

Just how poorly it ended isn’t open to debate. The Rockets lost Danuel House to poor judgment, Russell Westbrook looked, and played, awful after his return from COVID infection and injury, and most other Rockets played similarly badly in the second round defeat to the Lakers. The defeat looked listless, and gutless, and most Rockets watchers wondered just how rancorous the exit was.

Quite salty, as it turns out, but that has been covered here, here and here. One can say a lot about us here at TDS, but not that we aren’t thorough when it comes to cataloging Rockets misery.

But what does all this mean for fledgling GM Rafael Stone?

It’s certainly a crisis, but one that has solutions for a new leader that wouldn’t be available to the old regime.

Stone must point out, clearly, that this was all really Daryl Morey’s show. Rafael Stone is just here to pick up the pieces. This is tough when the man you’ve got to throw under the proverbial bus just gave you one of thirty such jobs in the world, but Morey will understand the necessity, if anyone would.

When one looks at the complaints made (almost certainly from Westbrook’s camp, with an added thorough documenting of nearly every negative emotion publicly expressed by a Rocket in the past two years) they all relate to basically two things.

ONE, how business was handled by Daryl Morey. Morey is a reductionist, and a rationalist. But he managed a team in a league full of fiery individualists. Full of people who never listened to the odds, which would indicate to just about anyone that they won’t make the NBA. PJ Tucker, toiling in the winters of Eastern Europe did not look at matters in a hard, cold, analytical light, when he continued to believe his future still lay in the NBA. He fought against the odds, and he triumphed. Morey was happy to employ him, but did he ever understand him? Combine Tucker’s sort of passion with the cold analysis of Morey, and some friction is bound to occur.

Morey ticked all the boxes, explained his decisions, showed his work. He was generally forthright and almost always rational (except for his early preference for undersized PFs, which looks good now, but didn’t then, and they’re all gone). He expected professional players, represented (usually) by top sports agents, to be “big boys”, like him. That’s exactly what most NBA players are, but only in the most literal sense.

They’re large young men, but not necessarily “big boys” in business (Lebron James, by contrast, seems to come into the league a seasoned 50 year old.). They’ve seen all the tumblers on the locks of life suddenly click open for them. If they believe they’re a special, destined, rare sort of person, how can one say they’re wrong? The evidence is on their side. They’re also, by an experienced businessman like Morey’s standard, awfully young. Players say they know the NBA is a business, but their feelings get hurt when the business gets done to them rather than by them. Like anyone else, but younger, more sensitive, more prideful.

Will Stone, brought to prominence from the shadow of Morey, from the same ranks of people who have gone on to GM positions around the NBA, have the human touch, somehow combined with Morey’s data-driven reductionism?

Will Stone be the sort of man to tell a passionate, sometimes unhinged, tough, manly competitor like Trevor Ariza something like this:

“Trevor, this is the ugly part of the business. We just can’t match that deal. But you should know, you are always, always, a Rocket. If you want to come back, say the word, and if we can make it happen, we will. I’m glad you’re finally getting paid what you’re worth, just so sorry it wasn’t us that could do it. You fought for us, and we’ll fight for you, whenever we can. Rocket for life.”

Did Morey say that? Who knows, but I imagine he said something very sensible, and also, true, but perhaps not moving in the manly sort of way that soothes hearts. Morey was a great strategist, certainly one of the very best ever seen in the NBA. Was he a “Leader of Men”(tm)? It seems less likely, unless those men were coldly rational, too.

Compare the Rockets to the Heat. Udonis Haslem hasn’t been worth much as an NBA player in years. But as a talisman of team values, and culture? He’s worth his weight in gold. He’s proof that the Heat mean all that stuff they talk about. There is no way that Haslem’s roster spot, the money, and lost “opportunity”, it represents would be allowed to occur for years running in Houston under Morey.

Stone should move quickly to pour oil over these troublesome waters. The first step is to say, publicly, and over and over, that this stuff is all in the past. A new day is dawning in Houston. Is that precisely true? It doesn’t matter just now, for Stone. It needs to be repeated, often, and urgently.

Stone needs to show he has the human touch, publicly, and quickly. It’s difficult thing for a new man on the job, but showing his pain at what’s happening, at not being given a chance to fix it all, would likely do some of that task for him.

TWO, the other thing Rafa Stone can do, is point out, quite rightly, that almost all the other player complaints center around nothing but coaching decisions.

Guess what? There’s a new coach, one who seems to have learned all the lessons that changed the NBA from the examples of Mike D’Antoni, Steve Kerr, and Rick Carlisle, but has added his own modern wrinkles and thoughts. It’s quite a lot to expect a man to lead two major revolutions in his lifetime, and in the end, Mike D’Antoni succeeded at the initial uprising, but couldn’t quite finish off a second one.

Stone needs to hammer that it’s silly to complain about last season’s coaching when there’s a new coach in town, a new coach who moreover, fueled the best offense in NBA history with a cast that overall might be worse than the Rockets.

This isn’t Stone’s fault, he needs to say that, and say the steps are being taken to fix all the complaints, and everyone should just settle the hell down for a week or two.


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