The Face Of Things To Come

HOUSTON - Daryl Morey did not sound impressed.

How else to describe his reaction to the news of Orlando’s four-team trade that left the Rockets on the outside looking in at a deal they very much wanted to be a part of? In fact, when asked for his reponse to the blockbuster during an interview last Friday with Sportstalk 790’s Matt Jackson, Morey even went so far as to reply that he “made the McKayla face” upon first catching wind of the trade. 

And so it is that after months of build-up the end result for Houston is a bummer to be sure. The Rockets’ interest in both Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum was well-documented and there’s little point in denying the disappointment felt within the organization that neither player will be donning Rockets’ red when training camp opens in October. Houston believed it had a strong offer on the table but Orlando went in a different direction. Clearly the Magic’s decision makers preferred the pieces they were receiving and in the end that’s all that matters. Their opinion is the only one that counts.

If anything, the events of the past week illustrate the important but often-overlooked role luck can play in the trading market. Certain players have highly varied values to certain teams around the league and that’s not something that can be controlled or easily predicted. Just because one club places a certain valuation upon Player X doesn’t mean that’s how he’s seen around the league. Beauty exists in the eye of the beholder. So give credit to the teams involved who found dance partners with an aesthetic they found irresistible. Perhaps the rhythm of their particular tango wasn’t your cup of tea or mine, but ultimately that’s not our decision to make.

So now what? Rockets fans understandably want to know about their team’s direction in the wake of finding out that, for now at least, Howard and Bynum are off the market.

The short answer of course is that nothing really changes; the club is still flush with young talent, draft picks and cap space, putting them in position to be opportunistic when the next big name becomes available. But many have also expressed impatience toward that message and won’t be satisfied until they see results in the form of a massive “splash” signing or acquisition. That’s OK, too. Sports are, after all, a results oriented business, and patience is not exactly a quality often found in abundance among the human race, especially when it comes to the teams people are passionate about and into which they pour their hard earned money.

So let’s discuss the issue of the Rockets’ direction in greater detail before tackling several other tough questions facing the team as it prepares to embark upon the 2012-13 season.

Precisely where is this team headed?

The club’s direction is actually very straightforward. Every move the team makes fits into the following paradigm:

The ultimate goal is to win championships and the only way that’s done is with All-Star level players. When lacking that sort of elite talent, every move a team makes should be focused on acquiring it. There are obviously three ways to do so: Via the draft, trades, or free agency.

Let’s tackle free agency first. The Rockets’ rule of thumb in this area: They will at all times sign players only if they think they are worth the money because otherwise the team runs the risk of ending up without enough room to sign a star player or make a key acquisition (note: Yes, this rule even applies to this summer’s signings of Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik; players the Rockets believe are still underrated at the price paid for their services). So moving forward, until the Rockets get that star, it’s a safe bet to assume that the club will maintain max cap room or greater at every single moment.

As for trades, to create deals and generate interest, a team must possess pieces that other clubs covet. So you can count on the Rockets continuing to constantly try to add players on cap-friendly contracts, draft picks and international talent that might be attractive to other teams in preparation for the moment when the next star player hits the market.

Draft-wise, forget about tanking. The Rockets will never intentionally try to be awful enough to give themselves a good chance of getting a top-3 pick in the lottery. They may end up playing a bunch of rookies or sustain injuries up and down the roster that could ultimately doom them to the dregs at some point, but that will never be the directive heading into the season and this upcoming campaign is no exception. That having been said, the Rockets are absolutely going to try to use the draft to their advantage, stockpiling as many picks as they possibly can in order to either package them together for something significant or use those selections themselves on high-upside players.

Notice a pattern? No matter the avenue of team building or acquisition, every single move the Rockets make is geared toward putting the club in the best possible position to acquire or develop star players. That is the singular focus of the team. That is its direction. Every single move the club makes fits that approach and model. It might not always be apparent at first (think Samuel Dalembert and the way his cap-friendly contract ultimately helped Houston move up two spots in the draft to select Jeremy Lamb) and it might not happen at a rate people find palatable, but that is the primary motivation behind every move the Rockets make.

Why don’t superstar players want to come to Houston?

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to today’s edition of small sample size theater! Summer of 2010, Chris Bosh opts to play in Miami with none other than future Hall of Famers LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Spring of 2011, Carmelo Anthony’s wish to play in New York is granted when the Knicks send a treasure trove of talent Denver’s way in exchange for the electric and occasionally enigmatic scoring machine. Summer of 2012, Dwight Howard is sent packing to the No. 2 team on his wish list, landing in Los Angeles to play with the Lakers.

And the conclusion reached at the end of that particular three-year superstar shuffle is that big names don’t want any part of Houston? Huh???

Let’s break this down in greater detail. Bosh opted to head to South Beach to be part of a particularly historic trio –- does that mean he hated Houston or the other 28 cities he shunned? As for Anthony and Howard, they clearly craved the bright lights of the nation’s two glamour cities, but are we really supposed to divine from a puny, three-year sample size that the league’s marquee players have no interest in plying their trade in Houston, a city that has played host to a plethora of All-Star talent for the vast majority of the past three decades?

Right now the Rockets are undoubtedly going through a tough transition that has seen them sitting at home during the playoffs the past three years. But these things happen when a club’s foundation players prematurely transition into retirement (Yao Ming) or rapidly regress as the result of injury (Tracy McGrady). That’s just the harsh truth. Even the two most successful franchises in NBA history (the Lakers and Celtics) experienced similar multi-year stretches of non-contender status as recently as the mid-2000s. Such periods are painful and no fun for anyone.

Eventually the landscape will shift and the tide will turn. Time, as it always does, will deliver the final verdict. But for now, however, I can't shake the belief that too many people are leaping to conclusions based on a sample size that is still too small to be considered anything close to conclusive.

OK, fine. But does this mean I'm going to have to buy a different jersey every year because this is a team in transition?

I get it, no one likes to see their favorite players traded away. What mystifies me, however, is when people act as if the Rockets are the only team in the NBA that uses every method available to them in a constant effort to upgrade their roster or better position themselves for big picture success. To be sure, Houston might be more aggressive than most, but is the alternative –- standing pat with a limited-ceiling roster –- a better long-term recipe for success?

Let's be brutally honest: The Rockets, while keeping their heads above the .500 mark the past three seasons, have not been to the playoffs or had an All-Star gracing its roster during that time. Stability is a luxury only the blessed can afford. Oklahoma City and Miami can get away with merely adding a piece here or a piece there because their respective cores have already proven themselves to be elite. Virtually everyone else, however, must be willing to undergo the occasional extreme makeover if they're truly serious about one day joining the ranks of the Heat and Thunder.

Can there be such a thing as having too much young talent on the roster; an asset saturation of sorts that creates a situation where fruit essentially rots on the vine due to a lack of playing time and experience?

In theory the answer to this question is unquestionably “yes” --  you certainly could have multiple young players who are all good enough to play such that they end up blocking each other from receiving the requisite experience ultimately needed to flourish. In practicality, however, it’s probably a pretty rare occurrence. No matter how good a team might be when it comes to the evaluation of young talent, there are still going to be hits and misses, with a natural sorting out process taking place during practice, summer league, D-League and games. So in theory the issue posed in this question can be true but in reality it’s rare.

But even if you take the situation where it is true –- that a team like the Rockets could overload its roster with youth talent and guys are rotting on the vine -– the obvious question remains: What’s the alternative? Is it to simply put a limit on the acquisition of good young players? What other use for that roster spot and cap room would be better?

Well, why not bring in an experienced veteran leader; perhaps someone at the end of his career who may not ever get off the bench but is someone who can teach young players what it means to be a true professional in the NBA?

This is a legitimate suggestion, though it should be noted there are different schools of thought when it comes to players who assume roles that are based more on some sort of mentorship rather than on-court productivity. There’s definite value in having positive role models and tone setters on the team but if said players rarely get off the bench to play there always exists the danger that they will be tuned out by their younger teammates. There are very few players in this league who can continue to command respect and attention after falling out of the rotation. For better or worse, that’s just the way it is.

And then there’s this: If you’re a team like the Rockets doing everything you can to unearth talent, don’t you want to devote every roster spot available to players who either have a chance to one day fetch you superior talent via trade or become that superior talent themselves? Does the name Jeremy Lin (cut on the eve of last season) ring a bell???

What’s with all the power forwards on the roster?!?

As if this point hasn’t been hammered home enough, let’s throw it out there one more time just in case it hasn’t quite sunk in: The Rockets’ plan right now is to get as many high upside guys as they can, regardless of position. And let’s be honest: After several years of hearing how they don’t have enough interior size, the last thing the team is sweating right now is having too many bigs.

Something else to consider: Houston has a lot of hybrid bigs at its disposal right now. The Rockets believe Terrence Jones can play the three through five. Donatas Motiejunas can play the four and the five. Same goes for Patrick Patterson. Royce White can play at least three different positions. And as anyone who watched the astounding amount of positional ambiguity on display during the NBA Finals can tell you, having versatility and the ability to throw myriad different at your opponent is never a bad thing.

Just give it to me straight: Do the Rockets actually care whether or not they make the playoffs this year?

Believe it or not, the organization strongly prefers to make the postseason and here’s why: If the Rockets were to make the playoffs this season, especially in a Western Conference that is absolutely stacked with tough teams yet again, it would almost certainly mean that at least one of the club’s young players performed at an All-Star level. And as you may have gleaned from this piece, All-Star level production is something this team desperately needs -- it positively affects the club’s core, its planning and its potential ability to attract more top-shelf talent.

Playoff qualification is a lofty goal to be sure. This is a very young team and those clubs historically take their lumps in the NBA. A breakout player or two, however, could change that equation rather quickly.

But know this: No matter what transpires during the season to come, the Rockets are comfortable with where they stand going forward. They have more than max cap room, a bevy of talented young players and some excellent draft picks for the future. And while critics will understandably cry out for results until that All-Star arrives, this truth remains: The Rockets of the post-Yao era have never been better positioned to acquire that player than they are right now.

Sooner or later, it’s going to happen. Let’s see what sort of faces McKayla, Morey and the rest of the Rockets’ faithful are making then.