It’s early November of 2012. An unfamiliar buzz flows through Toyota Center; the stands are dotted with makeshift beards. Eyes are fixed upon the oversize HD screen hanging at center court. When the camera focuses on James Harden, who is warming up, the crowd becomes delirious. There is, once again, a star in Houston.
It’s October 2013. Dwight Howard stands at the corner locker in Houston’s expensively renovated locker room. An LCD monitor hangs above him -- there’s one above every locker -- detailing some unconventional stats. The big man seems content, quietly joking with reporters nearby. About an hour has passed since Howard pulled down a career high-tying 26 rebounds in his Rockets regular-season debut. Like the billboards with his image that can be seen on the drive into the arena, Howard at this moment stands taller than his listed 6-foot-10. He is the fruit of an almost two-year-long pursuit.
Long after Yao Ming’s body could take no more and Tracy McGrady had already been shipped away, the quest for a fresh foundation had begun. With the two forlorn superstars off the books, everything in Houston revolved around finding the franchise’s next centerpieces. Management took gambles on lottery busts and let several free agents walk for nothing. It traded Kyle Lowry and amnestied Luis Scola in the name of flexibility.
The mission in Houston was “asset arbitrage,” creating value where it didn’t exist. The goal was not so much to fill a lineup but rather to short on players while value continuously accrued, waiting for the moment to completely cash in on one prized stock; in some ways, that revolving door of acquired lottery busts represented Daryl Morey’s idea of diversifying his odds.
Some decried the constant, seemingly directionless dealing. Morey didn’t understand basketball, they said. He didn’t value chemistry and longevity, bedrock elements in sports success. “You can’t manage a roster like a stock portfolio. How will a team ever grow?”
But now, with Harden and Howard in tow and Morey’s methods validated, for the first time in years on 1510 Polk St., the rumblings are not about cap space and asset accumulation. The debate does not center upon the high-end free agency market but rather defensive rotations. For the first time during the Morey era, basketball matters most.
The transition began last year, when Morey applied his ideology to the game action, designing a system that pushed the pace and eschewed midrange jump shots. The strategy led to a playoff berth and precious experience for foundational pieces like Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin -- experience that can be seen as more valuable than the acquisition of yet another low lottery pick. In the following months, still distraught from the bitter defeat, players approached offseason regimens with added emphasis. That extra attention has paid off for Lin and Parsons in particular.
Yet for all of the individual progress, for the sum of the parts, the results have been mixed. Anointed by many as contenders, the Rockets have underperformed by most people’s expectations, entering Wednesday’s matchup with Dallas at 8-4 and in fifth place in the Western Conference. On Nov. 7, the Los Angeles Lakers torched Houston with a 3-point barrage, a few nights after the Clippers had carved up its perimeter defense. Those L.A. affairs raised concerns about the team’s ability and willingness to defend, things serious observers wouldn’t have cared about even a year before. Blown leads in consecutive games against the Clippers, Raptors and Sixers raised other red flags about focus and late-game strategy, which again would have been ancillary matters in the past.
Before an early-November home game, Omer Asik peeks out from the corridor -- near the showers where press is not allowed -- into the Rockets locker room. Seeing a few reporters awaiting pre-game availability, he retreats back into safety around the wall. A week earlier, already clad in blue jeans and a green sweater, Asik is stopped by Rockets staffers on behalf of the media as he attempts to dart toward the exit elevators. This was the same night that Howard was introduced over the PA as the starter at power forward for the first time since 2004. “This is the only time we’ve gotten to speak to him in two years,” someone quips of the shy big man. Asik is asked his thoughts on starting next to Howard, an experiment to which the Rockets -- at the time -- were committed. He responds in expected generalities.
But any hope for that frontcourt marriage has ended. With the thinking being that Asik was too valuable to just give up, Kevin McHale tried in vain to pair his two centers together for 12 minutes per game. The results were disastrous and the plug has been pulled. Now Asik has yet again asked out and will inevitably be dealt.
But while that matter is of a transactional nature, the on-court implications are of paramount concern. In previous years, the focus in these situations was placed upon greatest value return (or whatever star was available, for that matter). Now the key words now are “stretch 4” and “rim protection.” The Rockets have a set manner in which they play and a set foundation, and whomever they acquire for Asik must fit neatly into that master scheme. We care now about floor spacing and the interior defense when Howard is not on the court; we’re no longer only counting dollars under the cap.
Prior to yet another Houston home affair, Chandler Parsons walks into the Houston locker room following warm-ups, sweating lightly but hair still immaculately sculpted. With a smile and a wink, Parsons pushes the rap music sounding overhead to deafening levels before sprinting away, rendering Patrick Beverley -- speaking to the media about his replacement of Lin in the starting lineup -- barely audible. Parsons is in some ways the team’s leader, its longest tenured member. And the upcoming decision regarding his status might perhaps be the greatest sign of an evolving ethos in Houston. The club can either make the swingman a restricted free agent in 2014 or allow him to become unrestricted the following year. Either way, judging by the dollars commanded by comparable players such as Nicolas Batum, Parsons is due a hefty payday.
The Morey Model that we've come to know would point toward an obvious route: selling high on Parsons and plugging in a cheaper replacement. That familiar paradigm would likely say that Parsons, not a true star, probably wasn’t worth what he’ll command on the market. But these are different days in Houston, when the games are played on the court rather than strictly on spreadsheets.
We've reached that point where “cashing out” is no longer an option. Cutting ties with Parsons would mean relinquishing the longest tenured Rocket, the team’s “glue guy.” It would disrupt the chemistry and stability. And as some have said, these things matter. And with Howard and Harden now in the fold, the Rockets are in position to take heed, to embrace the intangibles that quantitative analysis might miss.
We've reached the point where Morey no longer has to -- or needs to -- play Moreyball.