The Courtside Couch
No more Yao Ming: The Houston Rockets play Moneyball, can they win?
Call it the NBA’s answer to Moneyball. Houston Rockets General Manager Darryl Morey made his reputation as an executive advocate of advanced statistical analysis, a new-school thinker who looked first toward numerical indicators of productivity to determine players’ on-court value, rather than relying solely on the traditional “eye test.”
And now it’s time for Morey to prove that his vision of a new franchise model for competitive success can work once the original plan falls all apart.
With Morey’s guiding principles in place, the Rockets consistently targeted underrated talents for acquisition. Morey brought players like Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin to Houston and, usually, in trades highlighted by only a few spare salary cap assets or future late draft picks.
Seemingly every new addition during Morey’s tenure as GM has out-performed his original contract when given room to operate within the typically well-coached and impeccably well-organized Rockets’ team framework. Scola, Martin and Lowry have all been legitimately good- even All-Star-caliber good- at various times since joining the Rockets.
And yet the same questions posed of every contender always recur when discussing this team: Who is their go-to guy? Who’s the focus through which the offense first flows? Who anchors the team when they don’t have the ball, grounding their collective effort as a defensive unit? Who, exactly, captains this ragtag band of misfits when it’s time for somebody to step up and lead them fearlessly into crunch-time?
The answer used to be obvious, if always somewhat wishful in its simplicity: “Just wait until Yao gets back.” Yao Ming was the cornerstone, the player around whom every decision made by Rockets’ leadership would be oriented ever since he was selected with the first overall pick in the 2002 draft. Unfortunately for everyone, the career-long plague of injuries that eventually defined much of Yao’s NBA tenure quickly established itself as a night-to-night reality for Houston’s game-plans.
Still, there seemed to always be a lingering optimism amongst Rockets fans, and indeed the organization itself, when it came to Yao, an optimism that in hindsight might have bordered on delusion. For starters, there was the fact that, when healthy, Yao really was that good. It was impossible to watch him on a good night and not think that he truly might have been the dominant force that propelled Houston to a championship dynasty that would rival the one forming just down the road in San Antonio.
But optimism continued to reign even when the big man was sidelined. Mostly because, the notion of Yao’s return always being “imminent” meant it was easy, and even fun, to praise the over-achievement of the team that would start a 6’6” Chuck Hayes at center and still take the Lakers to 7 games in the playoffs from the #5 seed. It’s a perfectly rewarding experience to root for a well-coached group of plucky What’s-His-Name?-types as they manage to hang around with the Western conference heavyweights every spring, content as Rockets fans could be that the real work would be done next year, when Yao was back and healthy again.
That’s why it’s so curious that Houston has made no serious moves for the most highly-prized players of the 2012 free agency class. In fact, Houston has done nearly the opposite, positioning itself deliberately as the facilitator rather than beneficiary of the bumper crop of superstar talents seeking relocation since the lockout’s end.
It was the Rockets that made a Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers deal a reality before the trade was quashed by Commissioner Stern, as Houston agreed to send Scola and Martin to New Orleans in exchange for Pau Gasol. As justifiably lauded as Gasol’s play has been during his tenure in Los Angeles, the math made no real long-term sense given the players’ salaries (Gasol will make nearly as much as Scola and Martin combined in 2012) and ages (Gasol will turn 32 at the end of this season, the same as Scola and 3 years older than Martin). It’s hard to argue that three-team deal would have made Houston a substantially better team, either on the floor or in terms of salary cap flexibility, and building around a power forward on the wrong side of 30 is hardly a recipe for future success.
Likewise, the Rockets seem unwilling to gamble on a rental deal that might bring a superstar talent to metropolitan Houston. Maybe taking on bad contracts in trade only to risk losing Dwight Howard is prudent, but what about bringing Deron Williams home to Texas? Aren’t these the sort of moves that the Rockets should be exploring at least?
Yao’s early retirement did more than end a career that had seemed destined for the Hall-of-Fame too soon, it closed a chapter in the Houston Rockets’ story that had been a decade in the writing. And yet here we are, with the franchise doing it all again. At the time of this writing, the team holds a win/loss record of 8-7, on a pace to finish in the pack of Western conference teams chasing the eighth or maybe even seventh playoff seed.
Only this time, a first round exit won’t be “Pretty good, considering they did it without Yao…” It will be the absolute peak of this team’s potential, and the start of the long, slow slide back into the lottery and well out of competitive relevance for a good many years to come.