2012 NBA Free Agency: Houston, We Have A Problem.


I couldn’t resist. I know that headline has to be the most played out title ever, but it was just sitting there like a softball, waiting to be crushed.

But seriously, the Rockets are in trouble. Actually, so are the Mavericks, but we’re here to discuss the Rockets right now.

After trading point guard Kyle Lowry to Toronto, the Rockets are facing a major talent deficiency on their roster. Actually, it’s more of a proven talent deficiency, but it’s really all the same thing.

Lowry was Houston’s best player last year and he’s gone. Samuel Dalembert was their starting center and he’s now a Buck. Goran Dragic was the team’s best option off of the bench as Lowry’s back-up and you’ll never believe this, but he’s also found his way out of town.

Arguably Houston’s three best players from last season will be with new teams on opening night 2012. Left in their wake is Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, three rookie forwards and some other role players.

The Rockets seem to be facing a major rebuild this season or next season, and while that may be a bit overdue, let us not forget that it wasn’t so long ago that Houston seemed to be a team on the rise in the Western Conference.

Remember, the Rockets were the third team involved with the Lakers and Hornets at the time of that aborted trade centered around Pau Gasol and Chris Paul. When David Stern vetoed that deal, it didn’t just harm the Lakers, but shook the Rockets up as well. For the rest of the season, Scola and Martin never quite seemed to be themselves and some wondered if it was related to the trade.

Once the season got started, the Rocket struggled through another lottery season. I understand that it’s difficult to win in the Western Conference, and the Rockets were almost as close to making it as you could be without actually making it, but the list of teams that missed the playoffs the previous year and won the World Championship the next isn’t extensive and the longer the Rockets go without making the postseason, the longer that sets their championship dreams back.

The thing about championship teams is that they almost always have at least one future Hall-of-Famer on their team. The Heat this year had LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Mavericks in 2011 had Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki, the 2010 Lakers had Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol and were coached by Phil Jackson. The 2008 Celtics had three future all-timers on their team.

Look, I’m not inventing the wheel by telling you that you need great players to win big in the NBA. The teams with the best players always seem to do well. Houston, for whatever reason, isn’t exactly a prime free agent destination either. When it’s tough for you to sign free agents, you have to get creative to obtain great players.

For almost his entire stint as General Manager of the team, Daryl Morey has been stockpiling assets that would net him his All-Star and when the deal with the Lakers and Hornets was aborted, he didn’t have a plan B. Sure, it was a strange situation, but the Rockets felt like they were giving up a lot up and still couldn’t get a deal done. That had to be frustrating for the Rockets and especially their front office.

Gasol and Chris Bosh had always been two targets that the Rockets thought they could obtain somewhat reasonably, but Dwight Howard has been the big fish in the pond since the Summer of 2010. When he decided not to sign an extension with Orlando after the lockout ended in late 2011, the writing seemed to be on the wall. Houston whiffed on Gasol, but had more than enough assets to trade for Howard, especially if he was leaving the Magic anyway. It seemed to be a match made in Heaven.

Except to Howard, who said he would only sign an extension with his preferred list of teams. Houston was not on it.

Still, Houston eventually made the decision to trade for Howard whether he’d re-up or not and let the chips fall where they may. The most puzzling move was trading Dalembert to Milwaukee, along with one of their mid-first round picks to move up two spots in the first round. Dalembert isn’t a world-beater or anything, but to move him and a first-rounder to move up two spots for a guy that would hardly be a star right away was as curious a decision as I’ve seen.

The Draft came and went and Houston still didn’t have enough to trade for Howard, so they had a worse version of the team that wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs the previous year.

For all of the brilliant ideas that Morey has had as GM of the Rockets, his decision to keep the team competitive in the short-term while building towards something more substantial. The problem with that plan is that teams don’t just give away All-Stars without a good reason and I mean a REALLY good reason. Houston had one deal completed for their guy and couldn’t even make Dwight Howard want to take their five years and $100 million from them.

This could be the greatest cautionary tale for future NBA GMs yet. As many times as we’ve seen teams collect assets and move them for an All-Star caliber players, we’ve seen three more teams try and fail that. The current Celtics core came together that way, as did the Clippers, but you still have teams like the Rockets, 76ers and Warriors who have waited for a star player to join them and now may be facing the harsh reality that it may never happen.

The same applies to baseball. Billy Beane revolutionized the way a lot of people watched America’s Pastime and emphasized the importance of OBP, BABIP and a million other terms that I’m clueless about. Everyone always conceded that he was the smartest guy in the room and was building Oakland up the right way and for all of those nice words and anecdotes, Oakland never won a World Series. They never even won a pennant. They actually won exactly one playoff series before losing in the ALCS.

The reason that “the way we’ve always done it” is that way is because it works. Sure, it’s fun to think about Moneyball and advanced statistics helping an underdog win baseball games, but at the end of the day the best teams were the ones that had the huge payrolls. They had the huge payrolls because they had the best players. It was true for Oakland in the early 2000s and it’s true for Houston now.

Morey’s done a good job of keeping the Rockets afloat in a vicious Western Conference and they’ve been more than competitive in that time, despite not making the playoffs. Morey accepted the job when the Rockets were still built around Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. Injuries ruined that era in Houston basketball and now the time has come to bottom out and rebuild it would seem.

It will be that rebuild that will probably be Morey’s defining legacy in Houston. If the Rockets become a contender for a few years and make the Conference Finals or NBA Finals, you could say that he’s one of the better GMs going. If he falls short and continues to miss the playoffs or the Rockets barely squeak in, then he’ll be remembered as an innovative mind that could never get over the hump.

It’s just too bad the Gasol era in Houston never got going.