Morey, long considered the league's poster child for advanced statistics, suddenly looked like a man without a plan. After years of maneuvering to land a superstar, all the GM had to show for it was a slew of young, unproven players.
A few days before the start of the 2012-13 season, everything changed. In one of the more stunning trades in recent NBA history, the Rockets acquired James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder for Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin and three future draft picks.
Suddenly, Morey had the superstar he needed to establish Houston as a potential championship contender. With Harden in tow, Morey knew he'd finally be able to attract other marquee free agents.
One year later, that vision came to fruition. Dwight Howard spurned a contract extension with the Los Angeles Lakers to join Harden and the Rockets, sealing Houston's fate as a legitimate Western Conference power.
Realistically, the odds won't be in Houston's favor to win a championship in 2014. Howard and Harden will need time to become acclimated to one another, learning each other's strengths and weaknesses.
A title-less 2013-14 season shouldn't necessarily go down as a failure for the Rockets, though. So long as the team continues to build upon the strides it made in Harden's first season, the future remains stunningly bright in Houston.
Let's look back at the days before Harden to gain an appreciation of the cultural change he's facilitating with the Rockets.
The Pre-Harden Era
You don't need a PhD to know this about the NBA: To compete for a championship, you need at least one superstar on your roster. And if LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers taught us anything, it's that one superstar might not be enough anymore.
Theoretically, the 2004 Detroit Pistons stand out as the one glaring counterexample to that belief. Retrospectively, however, that Pistons squad had an All-Star at nearly every position in its starting lineup.
Morey, in full recognition of this reality, hardly masked his desire to acquire a superstar (or two) in the years leading up to the Harden trade.
At first, though, his pursuit for a superstar in the post-Tracy McGrady/Yao Ming era didn't prove very fruitful.
He struck out on Chris Bosh during the 2010 offseason and then made little headway in convincing Howard to force his way to Houston via a trade. A source close to Howard told NBA.com's David Aldridge in June 2012 that there was "not a chance" he'd stay in Houston if traded there.
Funny how things change in a year, eh?
Instead of being dissuaded from his inability to land his white whale of a superstar, Morey went full throttle on accumulating as many assets as possible. He figured that the next best thing to actually acquiring a superstar was positioning the Rockets to be ready to strike at any time.
Take one look at Houston's 2011-12 roster and you'll see Morey's fingerprints all over it. He turned Rafer Alston into Kyle Lowry in February 2009, then swapped T-Mac in February 2010 for Kevin Martin, Jordan Hill and a future first-round draft pick in February 2010.
A core of Martin, Luis Scola, Lowry and Samuel Dalembert wasn't exactly going anywhere, though. The Rockets finished 34-32 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, but the team was seen as treading water.
Houston was in the NBA's dreaded "no-man's land," too good to compete for a top lottery pick but not good enough to truly compete for a championship.
Adding Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik during the 2012 free-agency period didn't help clarify the Rockets' endgame, either. It appeared as though Morey had finally given up on his quest for a superstar, but wasn't quite ready to blow his team up for a full-out rebuild.
As Noam Schiller wrote the following for Hardwood Paroxysm in July 2012:
Daryl Morey used to be a consensus fantastic GM; nowadays, we’re not sure. We know he makes good moves, but that wonder boy shine has faded, as a somewhat artificial sense of joy is no longer enough once it's clear that it isn't being vindicated by the rewards that matter. For the first time since he entered this league as an unknown MIT prodigy, Daryl Morey needs to prove to us that he knows what he’s doing.
Three months later, he did exactly that.
The Beard's Arrival
Despite falling to the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals, the sky appeared to be the limit for the Thunder heading into that offseason.
With Harden, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in tow, Oklahoma City possessed three of the 12 players who would go on to represent Team USA in the 2012 London Olympics. The three were notoriously tight off the court, too, which only made them appear more inseparable.
Harden and the Thunder each appeared to be posturing when it came time to renegotiate his contract, but many assumed it was simply that: posturing. When push came to shove, it was nearly unfathomable that the two sides wouldn't be able to hammer out a deal.
Lo and behold, four days before the Oct. 31 deadline to sign Harden to an extension, talks broke down for good. The Thunder offered a four-year contract worth upwards of $55 million, according to ESPN's Chris Broussard, but Harden wanted a four-year max deal.
Thunder GM Sam Presti told Harden and his representatives that if he refused to sacrifice for the greater good, he'd be traded, reported ESPN's Brian Windhorst. And thus, three days before the start of the 2012-13 season, Presti shipped him to the Rockets.
Oklahoma City's decision to trade Harden sent shockwaves around the league. Nearly a full year later, it's still difficult to believe that the team punted on another go-around with the Harden-Durant-Westbrook core, even if that meant putting itself at a competitive disadvantage in the 2013 offseason.
Morey was more than happy to take advantage of the Thunder's desperation.
During Harden's introductory press conference in Houston, a reporter asked Morey how surprised he was that a player like Harden had become available. Morey's response?
"Shocked," he said, according to the transcript from Rockets.com. "I actually can't come up with any examples of a player of his caliber and age getting traded at the time he was traded—it really has never happened."
In Harden, Morey saw the future of the NBA. He's already one of the league's best pick-and-roll players, excels at getting to the free-throw line (as evidenced by his league-leading 10.2 free-throw attempts per game in 2012-13) and doesn't shy away from drilling clutch three-pointers.
The Rockets, in turn, structured their entire offense in 2012-13 around Harden's strengths. They pushed the ball in transition whenever possible, ran hundreds of pick-and-rolls for him and looked for open shots on the perimeter if they couldn't generate easy baskets in the paint.
As a result, the Rockets led the league in pace, averaging 96.1 possessions per 48 minutes, and ranked sixth in offensive efficiency, according to Basketball Reference. That offensive onslaught helped Houston squeak into the 2013 playoffs as the Western Conference's No. 8 seed, where, ironically, they'd run into Harden's old Oklahoma City running mates in the first round.
The Rockets fell to the Thunder in six games, but their potential became evident to anyone who watched that series. All the team needed was an elite big man, and they'd be on their way to championship contention.
Houston's only problem? Said big man, Dwight Howard, swore less than a year before that he'd refuse to sign long term in Houston.
The presence of Harden, however, proved too alluring to ignore.
In a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" conducted in mid-August, Morey divulged the details of his pitch to Howard. The top bullet point: "You need multiple elite players to win titles and James Harden is an elite player."
This wasn't the first time Morey had sung that tune. During Harden's opening press conference, Morey explained that his presence should help lure additional elite talent to Houston.
I do think that's a big factor in the NBA. I think we have an unbelievable city, top five in the league, for players wanting to play here. When you add to that a James Harden as our All-Star, and we've got now multiple other players who players around the league say, "Hey, I want to play with that guy."
Morey deserves plenty of credit for making Houston an attractive destination for Howard. He's the one who carved out enough cap space to sign Howard to a maximum contract and who acquired draft picks with one eye toward the future at all times.
It's clear, however, that Harden was the main draw for Howard. Lin, Asik and Chandler Parsons look like solid complementary pieces for a potential championship contender, but Harden gave the Rockets a true superstar presence to lure other top dogs to Houston.
Now that Morey has his two superstars, it's on Harden and Howard to lead the Rockets to championship glory.
The Rockets won't just come together as title contenders overnight, though. Teams hoping to make that leap must go through the typical building process.
As the Miami Heat demonstrated in 2010-11, it takes time to develop chemistry when meshing multiple superstars. The 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers turned into one giant cautionary tale in that regard, devolving from surefire championship contenders to a team lucky to make the playoffs.
If Harden and Howard turn into the second coming of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, it could divide the locker room. If the two can learn to co-exist both on and off the court, on the other hand, the Rockets should be staring down at least 50-55 wins in 2013-14.
No matter what happens during the 2014 playoffs, the Rockets are well positioned to be one of the most dangerous threats in the West for the next few seasons.
That all started with the acquisition of The Beard.
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