The Houston Rockets have failed to win a championship in the two years of the Mike D’Antoni era, but fans should be pleased with the results. This team would have won a championship in practically any other era, James Harden will win the MVP, and the Rockets are ready to rebound and compete again for a title next year.
But it is precisely because of these continuing high expectations that general manager Daryl Morey faces his most challenging offseason yet. Sure, he could snag LeBron James, Paul George, or even Kawhi Leonard and give the Rockets that final piece to defeat the Golden State Warriors. But there are plenty of things which could go wrong as well. Perhaps Morey fails to get that big piece. Perhaps he loses Paul, or signs him to a long-term contract which hurts Houston’s ability to improve in subsequent years. Perhaps he fails to trade Ryan Anderson’s contract.
Make no mistake. Rockets fan can spout “In Morey we trust” all they want, but it is best to keep expectations low as this offseason begins. Morey will have plenty of work to do to ensure that this team stays at its current level, let alone advance further to have a better chance of dethroning Golden State.
Looking at the Team
At the end of the 2016-17 season, most Rockets fans were generally okay with the season’s results and sports betting results, despite that disappointing defeat to San Antonio. Most NBA GMs in that situation would have been content to tinker around the edges and start the 2017-18 season with virtually the same team.
If Morey had done that, that resulting Rockets team would have been worse, especially given Patrick Beverley’s injury and Ryan Anderson’s decline. Instead, he took things to the next level by revamping the team, bringing in Chris Paul, and having an even more successful season.
But just like last season, the reality is that if the Rockets stand pat and bring in the same group, they are more likely to go down than up. Hero Sports noted that the Rockets were the fourth-oldest team in the NBA after the 2018 trade deadline. P.J. Tucker, Trevor Ariza, and Chris Paul will all be 33 by the start of training camp. Even Harden will be 29 by that date. And in the meantime, the Rockets bench has no useful prospects who can serve as potential rotation players like the Warriors have in Jordan Bell or Quinn Cook.
Even keeping the same level of talent presents difficulties, particularly with Clint Capela and Chris Paul. The Rockets ownership has made very clear that they will match Capela at any price, which is good but will still be expensive.
Chris Paul is more difficult to figure out. Clutchfans reported that Paul is more focused on bringing LeBron to Houston than in his own free agency, which indicates that Paul will be back. But as great as Paul was for Houston and as tragic as his last-minute injury was, he does have a record of getting his hamstring injured in the playoffs. Morey has plenty of difficult decisions on how to keep Houston at the same level that it was at last year, and getting LeBron or George will of course be even harder.
The Ownership Problem
From a certain perspective, these may sound like good problems. Maybe the Rockets will not get another star beyond Capela, Harden, and Paul. But perhaps they can upgrade by trimming around the edges and getting younger wing players who are less likely to decline than Ariza (who is reportedly demanding 50 to 60 million in his next contract). Given how difficult revamping everything to bring in a star would be, making small moves would be a perfectly fine backup plan.
But an offseason which fails to fulfil fan expectations could sprout another potential danger. Even if Morey fails to bring in another star and walks into the fall of 2018 with practically the same team, his reputation and past success will still keep him in good standing with the Rockets fan base.
But what about Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta? Fertitta has said all the right things about being willing to pay the luxury tax and being a hands-off owner so far. However, the NBA is rife with new owners wanting to come in and make a splash to show they know how to run a NBA team. If Morey stumbles, will Fertitta resist the temptation to bring in his own guy?
The Rockets were immensely successful last season, but with great success comes great expectations and challenges. Daryl Morey has a great amount of work to do to ensure that Houston can stay at its same level let alone get another star like James, and Rockets fans should not expect the arrival of another star. There is no reason to blame Morey for failing to do what may in fact be impossible.
The 10-Year Saga of Daryl Morey and “Moreyball”
It has been over ten years since Daryl Morey took over as general manager of the Houston Rockets. Back then, the Houston Rockets had two stars in Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, but were capped out and had no young prospects to speak of after a disappointing 2005-06 season.
Today, the Rockets have three stars in James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela, but are once again capped out, have no real young prospects, and face a seemingly grim road towards returning to title contention. The Houston Rockets have the fifth-highest salary in the league, but are barely above .500 and not in the playoffs. Under such circumstances, you would normally see fans and journalists begin calling for the general manager’s head.
I am not arguing that Morey has not been an excellent GM. The Rockets managed to rebuild themselves after the Yao Ming era with arguably the greatest trade rip-off in NBA history in the Harden trade, and I will claim that last year’s Rockets are the greatest NBA team ever which did not win a ring. But a lot of what has defined the early years of the Moreyball era is gone, and the Rockets need that early magic to avoid being capped out and facing no path to a title.
Morey and Draft Picks
Beginning around 2010, Morey began talking about how the biggest value contract in the league was the superstar player. The logic is perfectly sound. As there is a maximum value on what superstars can earn, and since superstars have a disproportionate effect on the basketball court compared to other sports, getting a superstar on a max contract was in fact the true encapsulation of Moreyball.
But that was not what Moreyball was defined from 2007 to 2010, when the Rockets did have two superstars. Then, Moreyball was defined by getting good though not great players at an incredibly cheap price using a Dallas SEO company. Using advanced statistics, Morey uncovered gems such as Aaron Brooks, Carl Landry, or Chase Budinger late in the draft. None of these players were stars, but they gave production wildly out of proportion with their miniscule salaries.
In fact, every dynasty needs players like these. The Warriors would not be the Warriors without finding Draymond Green with the 35th pick, and the Spurs famously found Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker late in the draft. And the Rockets did find Capela with the 25th pick in the 2014 draft.
But since then? Nothing. The Rockets just waived Zhou Qi, who now becomes another failure alongside Chinanu Onuaku or Sam Dekker. Gary Clark showed some promise early in the season, but his shooting numbers collapsed and he has played just 18 minutes total in games this December.
The fundamental story of this disappointing Rockets season is that while Harden has continued to be great, Houston’s other core rotation players have struggled and Morey completely failed to fill in the hole created by Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute’s departures. And while some of the blame can be laid on the Carmelo Anthony mess, the Rockets lack depth because Morey has failed to draft the young, decent late round prospects which once defined Moreyball.
Chasing the Big Name
And we cannot pretend that Morey holds no responsibility for the Carmelo Anthony mess. It is possible that Morey felt he had to sign Carmelo to make Harden and Paul happy, but we have no way of knowing if that is true. And the Carmelo Anthony saga is just another example of Morey trying to bring in the next star only for that go nowhere – remember Ty Lawson, guys?
Moreyball and Morey’s emphasis on advanced statistics was once supposed to be a revolutionary strategy which would help him recruit underrated gems. But as other teams have also jumped on the advanced stats revolution, the Rockets have failed to stay ahead and we have seen a greater reliance on this team getting conventional names like Lawson or Anthony. Both times, these players were supposed to find a new home in Houston and revitalize the team. Instead, both times they played key factors in creating disappointing seasons.
The last ten years under Morey have been filled with both great and frustrating moments for Rockets, from the thrill of chasing the Warriors last year to the struggles to get a star between Yao and Harden. But as the Rockets look at a disappointing, expensive season under a new owner, fans should realize that this is exactly the sort of environment which cause said new owners to decide on radical changes under new management.
The Houston Rocket’s Biggest Goats This Season
The 2018-19 season has started miserably for the Houston Rockets. Any hopes that this team was turning things around have been hit hard by Thursday’s defeat against an Oklahoma City team without Russell Westbrook. And while it is hard to believe that Houston will finish in the lottery, it seems all but certain that Houston will not push Golden State to the limit like they did last year.
Everyone on the Rockets bears some responsibility for this mess, from the highest star to the lowest benchwarmer to the front office. But certain problems and players in particular are holding this team back and could prevent any hopes of a sudden turnaround.
Melo to some degree has been unfairly targeted as the single scapegoat for all of Houston’s troubles, but he has hardly proven those who were skeptical of his signing wrong. On offense, he is averaging 13.4 points on 12.1 shots, only slightly more efficient than his time in Oklahoma City despite his reduced role. While he has been taking far fewer long mid-range jumper and more 3-pointers like he promised to do at the beginning of the season, shooting 32.8% from long range will not cut it.
And that does not even begin to touch on Carmelo, or the Rockets as a whole on defense. Houston’s switching defense requires cerebral players who know where they are supposed to go at all times, and the Rockets have watched players blow past Melo time and again.
If Carmelo was the only Rockets struggling off the bench, perhaps the Rockets could live with it. But Carmelo’s struggles become so much more apparent precisely because the Rockets bench as a whole has been disastrous.
Maybe Eric Gordon’s struggles can be excused due to injuries. But Gerald Green has failed to step up, shooting 36% from the field and 26% from 3. Michael Carter-Williams has been such a disaster after a promising preseason that he has been pulled out of the rotation altogether. The Rockets were supposed to compensate for Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute’s departure by adding other players, but those players have not delivered.
The other concerns about Houston’s bench depth is the total lack of a back up center to Clint Capela. This complete lack of insurance should be worrying. Isaiah Hartenstein has performed better than Rockets fans could have hoped, but the Rockets need Nene to come back from whatever is ailing him. Capela has always struggled with bulkier centers in the post like Marc Gasol or Brook Lopez, and Houston has been mauled badly on the boards in each one of their losses.
This is the big one. The Rockets can bench or even waive Carmelo. They can revitalize the bench by getting players off the scrap heap or getting healthy. But if Chris Paul plays like this, there is nothing Morey or anyone else with the Rockets can do to make a comeback.
Paul has never been a true volume scorer, but so far this season he is shooting less than 40% from the field and 27% from long range. His turnovers are higher than they have ever been, and he just appears slow and off in all of his games. Houston’s offense and inability to score has been the biggest cause for their malaise, and that exists because Paul has been unable to be the offensive monster he normally is.
Tim McMahon with ESPN reports that Paul has a right elbow injury, and Rockets fans can hope that Paul will improve. But we also knew that Paul would have injury concerns throughout the years. Paul’s decline is also much scarier than Melo’s or Gordon’s struggles given the massive 4-year contract Houston gave him this summer. Everyone knew that the latter years of said contract, where Paul will be making $44 million at the age of 36, will likely be painful. But if it becomes a bad contract starting now, Houston could be in serious trouble for the next several seasons.
Rockets Land Jersey Sponsor Deal with ROKiT Phones
Befitting of their names, regardless of how they are spelled, the Houston Rockets have reached a jersey sponsor deal with RoKit Phones, according to a team announcement.
“We were patient in deciding on our inaugural jersey partner and are thrilled to select ROKiT, a company which shares our commitment to excellence both on and off the court,” Rockets Chief Executive Officer Tad Brown said.
“We have high expectations heading into this season and look forward to introducing our fans to the quality products and high level of service that ROKiT offers.”
The team added the following:
“The partnership also includes select ROK Drinks brands, with three lounges at the team’s Toyota Center arena to be rebranded as Bogart’s Lounge, ABK Beer Garden and Bandero Tequila Terrace.”
Proud to announce a multi-year partnership with ROKiT Phones that includes designating ROKiT as our inaugural jersey partner! The ROKiT logo will be featured on all Rockets jerseys beginning with the current season. Welcome to the squad, @ROKiTOfficial! 📝 https://t.co/Rz2RTpk5iX pic.twitter.com/zOACj2SOwK
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) October 16, 2018
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