This is rebuilding done right. When the Houston Rockets landed NBA Sixth Man of the Year James Harden in a six-player, three-draft pick trade late Saturday, the oft-questioned moves made by general manager Daryl Morey since last season ended were instantly justified.
There are more than a few ways by which an NBA executive can stir the ire of analysts. The primary methods are: 1. Repeated failure. 2. A habit of bad-value contracts. Less apt to attract attention, but in many ways just as important, is a GM's willingness to accept mediocrity. After an offseason in which Morey almost completely turned over the Houston roster, he's proved not to be a willing member of the middle class.
When Morey took the reins of the Rockets' basketball operations department in May 2007, he inherited a roster that featured Tracy McGrady, who had not yet turned 28, and Yao Ming, who had yet to turn 27. His two stars were coming off a season in which they combined to average nearly 50 points per game. It was as solid a core as any in the league, and Morey's initial mandate was to put the finishing touches on a roster built to win big.
But for the past three years, mediocrity has thrust upon Morey. McGrady's knees robbed him of his elite athleticism, and Yao's career went into a quick and painful free fall because of chronic lower-body injuries. Morey got one season of McGrady and Yao before the injuries hit. In each of the past three years, the Rockets have missed the playoffs despite finishing over .500 each time. Morey's teams have remained competitive with a roster of players acquired to support a power core, not replace it. Still, the upside of the group has been limited to, at best, a lower-tier seed, so Morey set out to shake things up.
According to Morey's transaction log, he's made seven trades since the end of last season, drafted three players and signed free agents Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Carlos Delfino. If we're counting correctly, Morey's transactions have involved 32 players, 11 draft picks and 10 teams across the league. After the dust clears, the Rockets will return 13.5 percent of their minutes from last season. The second-lowest total of returning minutes in the league belongs to New Orleans -- at 43.1 percent. That's the fewest in the league by a country mile.
When a championship is the goal, the general manager's challenge is to not only construct the best possible roster for any given season but also leave open a possible path to elite status. This is a hard balance to strike, and the inability to do so marks our consistent criticism of the New York Knicks, just to name one team. Morey seems to have found this balance.
When his pursuit of Dwight Howard fell short, Morey didn't panic. Instead, he recognized the double-impact value of low-cost, high-upside assets and positioned his team for the move he made on Saturday. The Rockets are better, now and especially in the future.