What’s all the Fuss About Rockets GM Daryl Morey?

So often we toss around terms like genius and savant without stopping to check the accuracy of such hyperbolic qualifying nouns. We take brilliant men and women and put them on a pedestal without continuing to make sure their performance in a given field matches the effusive praise. Incidentally, the popular conception of Rockets general manager Daryl Morey as a team-builder of the highest order has only recently started to be questioned.

Earlier this week, in a somewhat salacious piece published on Medium.com, T.D. Williams made the argument that Morey’s savvy as Houston Rockets’ GM has been breathlessly overstated the past few years despite the fact that the Rockets have not been in a position to truly contend for a championship.

Here’s more from Williams:

“Will the heretofore fawning media finally begin to scrutinize Morey’s bonafides as a GM who can build a legitimate title contender? Seven seasons, countless fluff pieces, and annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conferences later, will someone with public sway finally confront the Daryl Morey conundrum: the most-celebrated, highest-profile general manager in recent history hasn’t actually won anything.”

As Williams goes on to catalogue in his piece, Morey has made splashy moves the past two off-seasons that have been good for marketing, good for the Houston fan base, and just good enough to keep the Rockets in playoff position while avoiding a painful and non-lucrative rebuilding process that so many other franchises have suffered through lately in an effort to revamp their rosters.

He deserves a certain amount of credit for this, but it also points to the ever-evolving question of how we measure success in the modern NBA. After all, there is a yawning chasm between being competitive and being a contender, and only a small handful of teams in either conference qualify as legitimate contenders.

For Morey and the Rockets, who have adamantly shunned conventional wisdom when it comes to the rebuilding process, the level of scrutiny Williams is calling for is absolutely warranted, and through a particular lens, it’s difficult not to see the Rockets’ first-round exit to the upstart Blazers last spring as a categorical failure.

To put it into perspective, Dwight Howard won precisely two more playoff games in his first year with the Rockets than he did in his lone, nightmarish season with the Lakers; although, he seemed to have a lot more fun doing it, which as we’ve learned, is apparently what’s most important to him.

Luring Jeremy Lin away from the Knicks hot off the heels of Linsanity and stealing James Harden from the Thunder two summers ago were both major coups for Morey and the Rockets, as was last summer’s aforementioned signing of Howard, but two consecutive early-round playoff exits have left Houston searching for answers.

A star-studded free-agency period this summer was supposed to bolster their chances of moving up the echelon of true title contenders in the Western Conference, but Morey and the Rockets were ultimately spurned by every big name available and sent home empty-handed.

LeBron James was never a realistic get, but for a while, it looked like Morey had a slugger’s chance at landing Carmelo Anthony, so much so that he even prematurely gave ‘Melo his former teammates’ (Lin’s) uniform number in what quickly became an embarrassing flub.

As it turned out, an extra $30 million was (shockingly) too much for ‘Melo to leave on the table in New York, but even if he had agreed to sign with the Rockets, he would have been a dubious fit at best. Sure, ‘Melo would have brought with him a windfall of additional marketing revenue – which history has shown to be high on the list of Morey’s priorities – but pairing him up with two other ball-dominant superstars would have caused all sorts of logistical issues for a Rockets team that already relied too heavily on offensive output.

With Howard’s defensive prowess waning, and Harden practically escorting his defensive assignments into the paint for easy buckets, what the Rockets really need is a two-way player, and it made a lot more sense for Morey and the Rockets to shift their focus over to plan B, i.e. convincing another high-profile free agent, Chris Bosh, to walk away from the rubble in Miami and hitch his wagon to a rising star. But Bosh decided he’d rather be a max contract player and the default number one option in the post-LeBron era in Miami.

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Losing Chandler Parsons to the Mavs in the midst of all this would have been a little easier to stomach had they landed just one of the big names they were trying to seduce but now only exacerbates their current predicament. Parsons had made approximately $2.6 million during his first three seasons but was something of a breakout star for the Rockets last year. He was also instrumental in recruiting Howard during free agency last summer.

Parsons was still under contract for the upcoming season for a paltry $960,000, but Morey decided to roll the dice and exercise a team option that allowed Parsons to become a restricted free agent on July 1. Ostensibly, the rationale for this was that Morey didn’t want to lose Parsons next summer as an unrestricted free agent and get nothing in return. But the Mavs called his bluff and offered Parsons a max contract, which wasn’t terribly surprising to anyone who’d been paying attention to how high his stock had risen around the league.

So, the Rockets have floundered through free agent frenzy and, as a consolation prize, have thus far settled for the lone signing of Trevor Ariza, a more affordable but older version of Parsons, and a whole lot of hand wringing.

Barring some unforeseen miracle, the Rockets are even less equipped to compete for Western Conference supremacy than they were last season.

The truth is that Howard just isn’t the dominant force he once was, and though we’ve seen incremental progress in his post-game, he hasn’t shown a fraction of the growth one would expect from being personally mentored by arguably two of the greatest post players in NBA history in Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin McHale.

Since his arrival, Harden has put up eye-popping offensive numbers but commits far too many turnovers and has been positively atrocious defensively. All of these deficiencies were on full-display during the Rockets first-round playoff loss to the Blazers.

Make no mistake: the Rockets are a fun team to watch, and Morey has put a very good product on the floor for the fans in Houston. They were gleefully among the league leaders in both offensive rating and pace last season but were a dreadful 23rd in points allowed per possession. It’s just this sort of style-over-substance ethos that has Williams and other critics scratching their heads when it comes to the ever-evolving myth of Daryl Morey.

There have been recent reports that the Rockets are still going after both Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo, but it’s unclear whether they have the assets or the flexibility to turn either of those scenarios into a reality. Surely, having Parsons under contract for less than $1 million this season would have given them an extremely attractive trade chip to dangle around for potential suitors, but previously discussed missteps have caused that ship to sail.

So Williams’ question is a valid one. How long will the Rockets fan base be content with simply making the playoffs, and does Morey have any tricks left up his sleeve to take the Rockets to the next level?

What do you think?

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