I want to take a trip back to the end of the Yao Ming era in Houston and look at just how Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has taken this team from utterly mediocre to superstar-laden and brimming with potential.
To start, check out the Rockets roster at the start of the 2011-2012 season. This is the depth chart from about 18 months ago as the Rockets were set to open that lockout-shortened year:
These are pretty much average starters all around, a bunch of “nice” players but nothing special. From the prior year’s team, Morey had made deadline deals of Shane Battier for a look at Thabeet, Aaron Brooks for Dragic and a pick, and let Chuck Hayes walk. They used the picks received from those two trades to move up and draft Donatas Motiejunas, and also drafted Parsons and Morris. They also picked up Jeremy Lin off waivers, but cut him shortly after to make room to sign Dalembert.
The Moves Begin
Come March, the team is surprisingly in contention for a playoff spot, and makes some maneuvering around it.
- Flynn, Thabeet, and a 2nd rounder for Marcus Camby
- Jordan Hill for Derek Fisher and a first rounder
Shortly thereafter, the team cuts Fisher (hooray!) and releases Terrence Williams. They miss the playoffs, but have a winning record, coming away with their customary #14 draft slot. They also pick up Greg Smith from the NBDL after trying out and subsequently waiving several guys like Earl Boykins, Courtney Fortson and Jeff Adrien.
During the course of the season, Dragic shines while filling in for an injured Lowry, causing friction. The Rockets also had numerous free agents, including Dragic, Lee and Camby. Likewise, Parsons overtakes Budinger for the starting spot.
Morey starts dealing yet again.
- Budinger for a first round pick (which becomes Terrence Jones)
- Dalembert + #14 + a 2nd round pick for #12 pick, Jon Leuer, Jon Brockman, and Shaun Livingston
They now have three first round picks in the 2012 Draft, the #12, #16 (T-Mac trade), and #18 (Budinger trade) to take Jeremy Lamb, Royce White, Jones and buy the rights to 2nd rounder Furkan Aldemir. Next up? Free agency, where the Rockets have ample cap room. But here’s where the moves start to get crazy:
- Lowry to Toronto for a future expected lottery pick and Gary Forbes
- Amnesty (waive with cap relief) Luis Scola
- Sign and trade Marcus Camby for Toney Douglas, Josh Harrelson, Jerome Jordan, and two future 2nd round picks
- Sign and trade Courtney Lee for JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore, Jon Diebler, and Sean Williams plus a 2nd round pick
- Sign Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik to max restricted free agent (RFA) contracts, utilizing a minor loophole nicknamed the “poison pill” to make their contracts especially tough to match
- Trade Lamb, Kevin Martin, two first round picks (acquired in Lowry and Hill trades) and a 2nd (acquired in Courtney Lee trade) for JAMES HARDEN plus some guys (Cole Aldrich, D. Cook, and Hayward
- Cut a bunch of the random guys acquired, including Shaun Livingston and E’Twaun Moore
- Sign Carlos Delfino.
This offseason was defined by the little things – like acquiring Camby for a playoff run at the cost of a 2nd round pick (while getting a first for Jordan Hill), and then moving him in a sign and trade for two 2nd round picks, plus snagging a 2nd rounder for Courtney Lee. After all that, the team now sports the following roster as they enter the 2012-2013 season:
2013 Trade Deadline
But the moves aren’t done. Prior to the 2013 trade deadline:
- Cut Cook and sign James Anderson
- Cut Machado and sign Patrick Beverley out of Russia
- Trade Aldrich, Patterson, and Douglas for Thomas Robinson, Francisco Garcia, and Tyler Honeycutt (who is… cutt)
- Trade Marcus Morris for a 2nd round pick
- Sign Aaron Brooks and Tim Ohlbrecht
The team makes the playoffs and gives the OKC Thunder an exciting series. The Rockets then make two final cap-clearing moves — the trade of Thomas Robinson for two international players and two 2nd round picks, and the unloading of Royce White’s contract at the cost of cash and the draft rights to Furkan Aldemir — setting themselves up to land the biggest fish in free agency, Dwight Howard.
So to recap our roster, and how they came:
- PG, Jeremy Lin – Signed, free agency
- PG, Patrick Beverley – Signed, undrafted free agent; minimum salary guy under contract for 3+ years
- PG, Isaiah Canaan – 2nd round pick
- SG, James Harden – Trade – which cost us what we got for McGrady (Kevin Martin, pick we got for Hill), Kyle Lowry (Toronto pick), our own pick+Dalembert (Lamb), and the 2nd rounder from the Courtney Lee deal
- SG, Francisco Garcia – Acquired as a trade throw-in; resigned to vet. minimum (below market after a very good playoff run
- SF, Chandler Parsons – 2nd rounder, a pick acquired in trade/bought
- SF, Omri Casspi – Signed in offseason to vet. minimum
- C, Omer Asik – Signed, free agency
- PF, Terrence Jones – mid-late 1st rounder, rights acquired by trading Chase Budinger (himself, a 2nd rounder)
- PF, Donatas Motiejunas – mid-late 1st rounder, rights acquired by trading soon to be free agents Battier/Brooks
- C, Dwight Howard – Signed, free agency
- C, Greg Smith – Signed, undrafted free agent; minimum salary guy under contract for 3+ years
We now have a tentative depth chart of:
We also hold the rights to international prospects Sergio Llull (bought the pick), Kostas Papanikolaou and Marko Todorovic (both acquired in the Thomas Robinson trade) and are owed the Knicks’ 2nd round picks in 2014 and 2015, two future 2nd rounders from Portland (plus the Clippers’ second rounder in 2015 if it’s between 51-55), while owing our 2nd rounder in 2014 to Philadelphia. We currently own all of our future first round picks.
That is how you redefine a roster. There is exactly one player that was on this team just 18 months ago – Chandler Parsons, who at that point was a newly drafted 2nd round pick.
Howard was drawn to this team for the chance to win. The Rockets could have tanked this year (not signed Asik/Lin), and having done that, they probably would not have gotten Howard (as the Mavericks didn’t). But Morey kept the team competitive while avoiding long term deals, which is incredibly impressive (see, Zaza Pachulia’s new three-year deal). The last two offseasons, Morey has waited and gotten a quality vet to sign a short term deal with a 2nd year team option (Dalembert/Delfino). Players who no longer have value to the Rockets as future players still seem to yield great returns (Battier/Brooks at trade deadline converted to first round picks; Camby and Lee as free agents converted to three 2nd rounders).
Part of the way this was done was by taking a shotgun approach to talent identification, which is how they landed guys like Beverley and Greg Smith for nothing.
They didn’t just pick them at first grab. Here’s the list of the 20+ players that were “waived” by the Rockets in the last ~2 years, essentially leading to guys like Beverley and Smith:
- Jon Leuer
- Jerome Jordan
- E’Twaun Moore
- Josh Harrelson
- Sean Williams
- Tyler Honeycutt
- Scott Machado
- Courtney Fortson
- Shaun Livingston
- Lazar Hayward
- Gary Forbes
- Jon Brockman
- JaJuan Johnson
- Daequan Cook
- Jeremy Lin
- Marcus Cousin
- Jeff Adrien
- Earl Boykins
- Terrence Williams
- Derek Fisher
- Diamon Simpson
There have been misses along the way. Terrence Williams cost us a first round pick (this year’s, to Atlanta) and was cut. Royce White was the 16th overall pick just a year ago, and it cost us the rights to Aldemir just to unload him. Trevor Ariza was a signing mistake — a player who still has a year remaining on the contract he signed with the Rockets — but he was quickly flipped for Courtney Lee. You can argue about Thomas Robinson too, but at the end of the day, the Rockets were going to need to clear the cap room, whether it was Patterson or Robinson. The Rockets knew what they had in Patterson, but Robinson was a chance at that third star. On the off-chance he develops, it would have created more options for Morey (e.g., moving Asik instead). And when he didn’t quickly, the value was still there to get four second rounders and clear cap space. He also gave the team a veteran free agent-to-be who ended up re-signing here for the veteran’s minimum in Francisco Garcia.
Smart gambles. Smart contracts. Avoiding multi-year deals on non-core pieces. That is how you turn a duo of Kevin Martin and Luis Scola into James Harden and Dwight Howard, and the best part of all?
We’re not done yet.