What more might Daryl Morey have in store for the Houston Rockets?
In considering that question, I am reminded of two scenes from the classic movie Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
In the film, two young prospectors hire an old prospector, played by Walter Huston (perhaps not a coincidence?), to help them find gold in the mountains.
In the second most famous scene from the movie, after Huston has led the young prospectors on a long and fruitless search, the men stop walking and instead begin berating the old man for his ineptitude.
As he listens to their insults, Huston starts maybe the most jubilant dance ever captured on film, and he cackles with glee.
"Nuts, am I?" Huston says. "You're so dumb, you don't even see the riches you're treading on with your own feet!"
The men had come to rest right on top of the mother lode.
The old prospector reminds me of Daryl Morey.
Many of the moves Morey makes look odd, if not downright insane, on paper. And yet here the Rockets are, winners of five straight, the talk of the Western Conference, and well under the salary cap.
It appears that Morey has struck gold. And maybe, just maybe, he knew what he was standing on all along.
But is that possible? Could Morey have predicted the chaos of this offseason, and diagrammed the outcomes like a chessmaster playing five moves ahead?
He says he did. Going into July, Morey knew Kyle Lowry had essentially refused to play for coach Kevin McHale. If Morey was committed to McHale, Lowry would have to be traded, and with his value high, Rockets could get a high draft pick for him.
But that had to mean Morey was committed to promoting point guard Goran Dragic, who had played well during Lowry's injury, to starter.
According to Morey, not so.
"We did anticipate we might lose Goran," Morey said, "because we knew he was going to be pursued by multiple teams and if it was a deal we were not comfortable with, we knew we’d have to walk away.
OK. I can buy that Morey sensed Dragic would bolt back to the Phoenix Suns. Regardless, Morey played the equivalent of Russian roulette with his point guard spot, trading Lowry after Dragic left the fold, but before the Rockets had even extended an offer to Jeremy Lin. And recall that the Knicks were famously rumored to have said they'd match any offer for Lin "up to $1 billion."
Yes, Morey had a backup plan: Toney Douglas, whom he'd obtained with the Marcus Camby trade. But there was little chance Douglas was slated as a starter.
Are you telling me Morey somehow knew his brilliant poison-pill offer to Lin would eliminate the tough-talking Knicks from the Lin courtship?
Maybe he did. What we know for sure is, Morey and his virtuoso accountants got their man. And they weren't done. For months, Morey had been pestering Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti with one question: Want to discuss a James Harden trade? When the Thunder failed to sign Harden to an extension, Morey's frequent phone calls put him top of mind to do a trade.
What an offseason. And that's not even counting the Royce White debacle Morey has thus far weathered.
The dust has settled. The Rockets and Morey appear to have done one of the quickest and best rebuilding jobs in NBA memory.
When I look at the five starters Morey assembled, what excites me most is their resemblance to the 2004 Detroit Pistons.
Every single starter on that championship squad had been dissed in one way or another.
Chauncey Billups: a bust at number three overall who would never fulfill his promise. Richard Hamilton: when Wizards general manager Michael Jordan dealt him for Jerry Stackhouse, he was quoted as saying he had "picked [Joe] Dumars' pocket." Ben Wallace was undersized and had no offensive game. Tayshaun Prince stayed at Kentucky all four years and was rewarded by being called too thin and dropping to 23rd in the draft. And Rasheed Wallace...well, you could fill every bathroom wall in Portland's Rose Garden with all the dissing Wallace had taken.
Five guys with a chip on their shoulder, plus a coach who emphasizes defense and gets the players to buy into a team-first philosophy...and voila: a Larry O'Brien trophy.
Now let's go through your 2012-2013 Houston Rockets.
Jeremy Lin? The subject of relentless second-guessing from the moment he was signed. James Harden? The Thunder didn't think enough of him to give him the five-year deal he wanted. Omer Asik, like Ben, has no offensive game. Patrick Patterson was rumored to be a lottery pick, but like Prince dropped to 14th. Chandler Parsons was the SEC Player Of The Year, but was drafted 38th overall.
Five guys who have every reason to carry a chip on their shoulder. And hmm, in Kevin McHale they've got a guy who stresses defense and wants his guys to play as a team.
History might well repeat itself.
And to help history along, here's the other good news: Houston is stockpiled with draft picks (the Lowry trade included) and is well under the salary cap—both situations that seem to indicate the team will make one final move.
So will Morey strike again? And if so, where?
The only one of the five starters I'm not sold on is Patrick Patterson. He's certainly a serviceable player, but not an exceptional one. The backups at that spot, Marcus Morris and especiallly Greg Smith, have shown flashes, but to me—and obviously the coaching staff—Patterson is still overall the best of the bunch.
So if Morey decides to make a move, my strong guess is it would be at power forward. Ironically, that's the same position the Pistons addressed in that 2004 season, obtaining Rasheed Wallace at the trade deadline.
The thing is, this young team is unquestionably developing chemistry and a team identity. Is it worth it to risk giving that up?
Depends on what Morey could get.
To me, the intrepid Morey will most likely focus on a player with both consistent stats and a lunchpail mentality, like Utah Jazz power forward Paul Millsap. Millsap, rumored to be on the trading block, would fit this roster very well—much better than Josh Smith, whose game is as big as his attitude. In addition, the Rockets' draft picks could prove an enticing incentive for the Jazz.
Another power forward in the same mold is the relatively low-mileage and consistently exceptional Anderson Varejao. His attitude is terrific, and so are his rebounding skills. The Cleveland Cavaliers reportedly want young talent? The Rockets have that in spades...and have those draft picks to sweeten the deal. (After all, what talent is younger than talent coming out of college?).
Intentional or not, Morey has done something really special in his construction of this team. Five guys who go to work every night is not often found in the NBA.
So will they disrupt team unity by going after a superstar with their available cap money? I hope not. I'd take Millsap or Varejao any day over guys like Amar´e Stoudemire or Pau Gasol or even the aforementioned Josh Smith. Because I prefer to root for guys who put the team first.
I will obviously defer to Morey's clear expertise for what happens next.
But Daryl, on the off chance you read this, I'll close by paraphrasing the first most famous scene from Treasure Of The Sierra Madre.
Superstars? We don't need no stinkin' superstars.
You've given us a true team, guys we can feel good about cheering for.
That's the real treasure.
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