The Houston Rockets’ radical roster fluctuation over the last 15 months has been a symposium in the new landscape of the NBA’s free agency and trading principles. No acquisition more demonstrates the fruits of general manager Daryl Morey’s extensive labors—and favorable relationship with chance—than that of Dwight Howard.
As long as he stays healthy, Howard’s arrival in Houston seals the team’s fate as a legitimate contender for the Western Conference crown for the next few seasons. But it would be disingenuous of anyone within the team to say that the Rockets had it planned it this way even as recently as one year ago.
Things could have gone in a very different direction.
For starters, the Rockets could have traded for Howard in the 2012 offseason. They pursued him but ultimately lost out to the Los Angeles Lakers in the sweepstakes. Had they gotten Howard then, it's unlikely they would have had the assets and wherewithal needed to trade for James Harden. They also would have gotten a version of Howard still plagued by bad back problems.
The stranger rabbit hole lies in what was perhaps the most infamous non-trade of the modern era.
In 2011, the Rockets nearly facilitated a multi-team deal that would have sent Howard from the Orlando Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers and landed Pau Gasol in Houston. The Rockets originally had their sights set on Chris Paul in the deal (who was also set to play with the purple and gold) but eventually accepted the prospect of receiving Gasol instead. Houston was starved for an elite player.
Had the deal gone through, the Rockets would have been the worse for it. For a number of reasons—mostly salary related—picking up Gasol would have prevented the team from making the earth-shattering trade for Harden that jump-started the franchise.
Morey and Rockets fans should be glad that the league’s front office nixed the monstrous deal. It allowed them to stay the course of collecting a critical mass of assets until the right blockbuster shift presented itself—which it did. Twice.
Gasol’s onerous contract (penned, like most of the league’s bulkiest deals, before 2011’s new collective bargaining agreement) would have left the Rockets too inflexible to do much with their core. They would have had to build around the oft-injured center.
The Lakers were coming off their second consecutive championship at the time of the botched mega-trade, and Gasol’s stock was as high as it had ever been. Through all reasonable lenses, Morey would have been right to invest in him—but the events since then tell us otherwise.
Gasol’s body has broken down, and his player efficiency rating has declined in each of the past three seasons. Last year, his PER was a middling 16.7, compared to the 23.3 he boasted at the time of the failed swap. This is not worthy of the Spaniard’s $19 million salary this year.
The way this situation panned out in Houston's favor reveals a larger truth about the shift in salary structure: Having two superstars on one team is only feasible if they’re playing on contracts made under the fresh CBA. Otherwise, superstar salaries will push a team into a level of tax penalties that almost no team can manage.
Morey’s market strategies are as good of a testament to this truth as anything. But it was, above all, strange fate that got him two superstars.
Following the big move’s fallout in 2011, the Rockets crawled through a mediocre campaign in the lockout-shortened season, finishing 34-32 and missing the playoffs.
Then, they traded Kevin Martin—who would have been included in the Gasol trade—Jeremy Lamb and a first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Harden. They signed him to the lucrative long-term contract that the Thunder had denied him (which comes in at $6 million less this season than Gasol’s salary), and the team came alive in 2012-13, making Houston a desirable destination for Howard.
If the Rockets acquire the extra piece that many believe they need to complete the picture of a true title contender, Morey’s prowess will play a role. But it can never be as valuable as the mistress who has all of Houston smiling about Howard joining the Rockets: Lady Luck.