Perhaps the most buzzed-about GM in all of the NBA, the Houston Rockets’ Daryl Morey has been on a hot streak. He’s pulled two superstars, in Dwight Howard and James Harden, seemingly out of thin air and has swiftly returned his franchise to prominence.
But he’s also made some moves that are coming back to bite him.
Most specifically, the poison pill amendments he made to Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik’s contracts—penned in the summer of 2012—have tied his hands considerably. Originally enacted to prevent the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls, respectively, from matching the players’ offer sheets while they were both restricted free agents, the clauses are now muddying the waters of Houston’s title hopes.
A "poison pill contract," for the uninitiated, is simply one with a backloaded amount of salary toward its expiration. They're used to scare away other suitors in free agency, who value the player of target less than they do their long-term salary flexibility.
The strategy got Morey his marks, of course, but then his fortunes rose to heights that his greatest dreams couldn’t have predicted when Harden, and then Howard, came to Houston.
Since then, those pills have become more poisonous to him than to any of his adversaries. They’re making both Lin and Asik nearly unmovable in a trade.
Having Lin around is not exactly a problem, as he’s played above expectations this year, shooting 48 percent from the floor, and he fits in very well with the Rockets’ ball-pushing style. But the $15 million he is owed next season (the same figure that will go to Asik) is a number that the always active Morey would love to have back, as even more is now being spent on Harden and Howard and they're bound for the luxury tax.
As Patrick Beverley has emerged as an almost equally (albeit differently) effective option at point guard, Lin looks more and more to be expendable. Especially considering that the Rockets could use some more natural defenders on the wing.
The situation with Asik is, of course, much uglier. Unlike the point guard position, the Rockets have the center spot on total superstar lockdown. Howard plays 34 minutes a game, and lineups with both him and Asik have been paltry. Asik is understandably displeased receiving only D12’s leftover minutes and has demanded a trade, but his whopping salary in 2014-15 makes him very difficult to move.
Perhaps Morey can wow the field yet again, drumming up enough panic and demand as the trade deadline approaches to make another of his high-return swaps.
But for now it looks as though he’ll be stuck taking back a less than ideal package, or burdening his team with the task of finding that elusive role for Asik which improves them both on the court and in the locker room.
The bind Morey is in raises questions about how useful poison pills are in general.
Obviously, as was demonstrated when Asik and Lin were successfully pulled from their previous teams, they’re good for immediately-desired results in restricted free agent situations.
But they cramp teams’ cap space down the road—for the same reason that the Knicks and Bulls were afraid to match Lin’s and Asik’s offer sheets, Morey is now slapping himself on the forehead. He outbid even himself to get his guys.
Morey’s shrewdness has been pivotal in lifting the Rockets from mediocrity all the way up to potential title contention. His next move, now, is to let his investments pay off and watch his team gel.
Continuity is more likely to win championships than lightning in a bottle.
Perhaps this means simply waiting out Lin’s and Asik’s contracts is the best course, however inconvenient it may be.
In any event, Morey’s done his team and city good, and would be wisest to not get too cute and think his cleverness will persist forever. The circumstance with Asik proves he’s quite capable of a misfire, and should be pleased that his biggest bullets hit right.