“It was a tough weekend. … We were very close to what we thought was maybe the best team in the NBA.”
Daryl Morey made his way through the sports radio circuit Monday morning, dutifully expressing the heartache attached to a mind-bending 48-hour stretch that saw his Houston Rockets go from the edge of title contention to taking, at least for now, an agonizing step back in their tireless attempt to scale the NBA mountain.
And yet, Morey’s mood was neither morose nor downtrodden. It was borderline defiant. Surely the Rockets general manager would rather be preparing for a press conference welcoming Chris Bosh to Houston after a years-long pursuit and feting the return of Chandler Parsons. But with Bosh staying in Miami and Parsons heading to Dallas, Morey seemed ready to move on and begin the plotting yet again.
The Rockets have been here before. In December 2011, the Rockets were up in arms over the vetoed Chris Paul trade that would have landed them Pau Gasol. Two summers ago, Houston was branded a team incapable of acquiring superstar talent when the club’s efforts to trade for either Dwight Howard (fresh off back surgery and with no desire, at the time, to come to Houston) or Andrew Bynum fell flat.
But Morey never stopped maneuvering, and all of those trades and draft picks and failed trades ultimately ended with both Howard and James Harden ending up in Houston.
That is the silver, or at least pewter, lining surely being peddled by those at the helm of Houston’s mission control today. It is not unreasonable. This team should still be very good. Howard and Harden remain the best players in the league at their respective positions. The newly acquired Trevor Ariza should fit nicely alongside them, supplying sorely needed wing defense and 3-point shooting at a price far more palatable than Parsons’ new deal. Young talent like Pat Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas ought to continue to improve. 2014 second-round selection Nick Johnson has acquitted himself quite nicely during summer league so far. And the first-round pick acquired from the Pelicans (with protections guaranteed to make it fall somewhere between selections 4-19) in the Omer Asik deal and the $8.4 million trade exception courtesy of the Jeremy Lin trade with the Lakers are valuable tools now at the Rockets’ disposal. They have and continue to value most the things that lie at the heart of the formula that has brought them to this point: asset accumulation and flexibility. Prepare to hear Houston’s name connected to Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, Goran Dragic, Paul Millsap and LaMarcus Aldridge approximately 1.8 million times between now and the moment those players are either locked up or shipped elsewhere.
For now, though, the Rockets must live with their misstep. And given the belief in some circles that Houston’s brain trust routinely exhibits a confidence bordering on arrogance, rest assured there exists a sizable faction of NBA execs and insiders who could not be happier at how this past weekend’s events unfolded. Comments such as, “You have to be the one to find the Chandler Parsons, not the one that gives the Chandler Parsons the max contracts,” which Morey said Monday morning during a radio interview, don’t exactly help in that regard.
To some, Morey’s wings just got burned to smithereens by the twin suns of Bosh and Parsons. After all, it was the Rockets’ calculated roll of the dice that allowed the newest member of the Mavericks to hit restricted free agency this summer instead of holding on to him for another discounted season and letting him hit the unrestricted free-agent market next year. Now they have nothing to show for their efforts after being force fed the same sort of bitter pill they made New York and Chicago swallow two years ago because of the creatively structured contracts they conjured for Lin and Asik, respectively. Morey called Parsons’ contract “one of the most untradeable structures I’ve ever seen” Monday during an interview with KBME-AM.
The loss of the 25-year-old forward deprives Houston not only of a versatile secondary playmaker, but also a valuable voice in a locker room that wasn’t always on the same page a year ago. Parsons is a uniter, a player with a gift for bringing different groups together and making everyone he comes in contact with feel valued. His loss in that respect is by no means catastrophic, but it does place even more responsibility on the shoulders of Howard and Harden to grow, mature and prove that they are capable of creating a culture that is all about winning – and not just about winning their way and on their terms.
Yes, it’s only mid-July and we’re still two-and-a-half months away from the start of training camp. We can’t yet see anywhere close to the complete picture. But from today’s vantage point it’s clear the Rockets face big questions -- questions they likely didn’t envision having to tackle a week ago -- both on and off the court. Making matters more difficult, they will be forced to find solutions while toiling with the NBA’s most demanding division. The Spurs are the Spurs, and Memphis, Dallas and New Orleans all appear bigger and better than they were when last we saw them.
But perspective is important here. Remember: the Rockets were a mere “yes” from Bosh away from having what no less an authority than Jeff Van Gundy declared “the best starting five in the NBA.” A yes from the Heat center would have yielded Houston an All-Star talent for a third consecutive summer. The same maddening, capricious and uncontrollable twists and turns that can ruin even the most flawless play call on the court can just as easily wreak havoc with team building off of it. Failure doesn’t mean you ditch the plan if you believe it remains the best path to ultimate success. Houston’s patience and predatory instincts are what put the franchise in position to land Harden and Howard.
Like 28 other teams in this league, Houston sees San Antonio as the benchmark for team-building, culture and sustained excellence. When an unfathomable twist of fate left the Spurs reeling 13 months ago, provoking shouts that their title window had closed for good, they never wavered in their response. In their own way, the Rockets’ reply to excruciating misfortune will be no different: For better or worse, through well-placed belief or misguided hubris, they will faithfully stick to their vision and continue the quest to build a lasting NBA empire, hoping all the while that their story eventually mirrors that of the fairy tale that seemingly never ends in San Antonio.
Jason Friedman is a writer living in Houston. He previously wrote for the Rockets' official website.