Daryl Morey knows how to game the system. Like the Oakland Athletics' Billy Beane, he sees market inefficiencies and exploits them until the rest of the league catches up. It's his special brand of young asset and draft pick collection that has become in vogue for rebuilding teams, and the current iteration of the Rockets are leading the charge to eliminate the mid-range shot.
Exploiting inefficiencies is what led to two of Morey's most controversial moves in Houston, the signings of Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to "poison pill" deals. Signed pre-James Harden and pre-pre-Dwight Howard, the deals—matching three-year, $25.1 million contracts—were both derided and praised, depending on which league circle you hung out with.
Restricted free agency is quite possibly the worst place for a promising NBA player. You have freedom, but not really. Rare exceptions aside (Hey, Tyreke!), restricted free agents are tertiary concerns in July, as teams with money would much rather grab the sure thing than have massive cap holds mucking up their cap. The three-day wait where teams decided to match or not is agony, the type that restricts (get it?) the market and often leads to below-market deals.
Morey, equipped with cap space and a blank checkbook from ownership, swooped in to take advantage. Asik's and Lin's deals came with "poison pills" in the form of $15 million balloon payments in the final years of their contracts. Because Houston was under the cap, it could afford to spread out the cap hit over three seasons—an $8.37 million salary each year.
The Bulls and Knicks, over the cap, would be beholden to that $15 million figure landing on their caps in 2014-15. Not only that, they'd have to cut a check to whatever luxury-tax implications came with said deals—a metric (expletive) ton in New York's case.
Both teams declined.
A season-and-a-half later, Morey is finding out that sometimes markets are inefficient for a reason.
In terms of average value, it's hard to quibble much with either Asik's or Lin's contract. Asik is one of the best half-dozen rim protectors in basketball, someone who single-handedly held together the Rockets' defense last season and would probably be a six-figure player on the open market. Lin is certainly overpaid as a third guard, but not in an egregious or crippling way—especially considering his off-the-court popularity.
If the Rockets were the same franchise, scuffling and in big-time need of intrigue infusion, they would probably be happy to ride out these deals. This, of course, is not even remotely the same franchise.
The arrival of Howard and Harden comes with championship expectations. Houston is 25-14, just a game out of having first-round home-court advantage. They outscore their opponents by 5.4 points per 100 possessions, sixth best in the NBA.
The Howard mocking has subsided as he's put up stats right in line with his career averages—almost eerily so. Harden is flawed defensively and is hitting only 33.3 percent of his three-pointers this season, but he's the best attacking 2-guard in the game. With Chandler Parsons playing the perfect third banana, the core of a championship contender is here or at the very least a conference finalist.
You know, if it weren't for those two pieces hanging over their heads.
Asik has been unhappy since the moment Howard signed. He requested a trade in July that the Rockets denied and again found himself unhappy early in the season after being benched for Terrence Jones. Houston was more receptive to trading Asik this time around, instituting a Dec. 19 "deadline" to send him elsewhere—in large part so it could re-flip any assets that didn't fit in the win-now window.
Seeing as we're in mid-January and Asik is still a Rocket, you can probably tell how that went. The Rockets pulled out of negotiations and regrouped when the market didn't acquiesce to Morey's price, which included a combination of young talent and draft picks—the classic Morey cocktail. Left without an offer to his liking, Morey would have been facing the prospect of an awkward reintegration with Asik. If he were actually healthy enough to play.
The Turkish big man has been out since Dec. 2 with a leg injury and has appeared in only 17 contests this season. With Asik still due that $15 million balloon payment next season—only the cap hit could be spread out, not the actual payment—league executives are getting more skittish by the moment.
Sean Deveney of the Sporting News reported it's now more likely that Asik finishes the season as a Rocket. The $15 million price tag will only scare teams off more this summer.
“It is a tough sell to bring something like that to your owner,” one league executive said. “You have got to tell him, ‘We’re getting a pretty good player, an $8 million player. Oh, but we have to pay him $15 million. We will be giving him LeBron (James) money. That’s OK, right?’ That’s not really a conversation you want to have.”
Same goes for Lin, who himself has been the subject of rumors aplenty. There was no hard and fast date with Lin the way there was with Asik, and he's generally been more affable about losing his starting spot to Patrick Beverley.
Lin is also by far the less pressing player to move. He's dealt with injury issues all season and is a net minus defensively, but he's a nice change of pace from Beverley and has worked far better with Harden this season than last.
The Rockets outscore opponents by 9.9 points per 100 possessions when Lin and Harden share the floor. They're better on both ends of the floor. Last season, Houston was worse on both ends when the duo played together. Harden and Lin are at their most effective with the ball in their hands, and Lin especially looked lost whenever he played with the new franchise cornerstone.
They have worked much better together this season in large part because of Lin's improvement as a jump-shooter. He's slowed a bit since a ridiculously hot start, but teams respect him now. That's enough to make him an inoffensive rotational piece.
I'm frankly not sure how coach Kevin McHale rectifies the Asik situation. His face is in a constant sourpuss when he hits the bench. He left Chicago to be an NBA starter, played like one last season and is understandably frustrated to return to a role he thought he was escaping. McHale toyed around with starting Howard and Asik at the beginning of the year, but it became quickly apparent that pair was an offensive dumpster fire.
The Rockets were outscored by nearly 16 points per 100 possessions with the two seven-footers on the floor. Their points-per-possession average would be a league worst by a country mile. And, even worse, the team wasn't discernibly better defensively, either. It was a spacing wreck, and that's something that isn't going to be improved by ego massaging.
The easy answer here is to play Asik only whenever Howard sits. Howard plays 34.2 minutes per game. He'll probably be nearing 40 during the playoffs. That leaves somewhere, roughly, between eight and 14 minutes per game, not accounting for any time where McHale wants to toy with smaller lineups or mix up his rotations.
Owner Les Alexander may be understanding and filthy, stinking rich. But if other NBA owners are balking at paying Asik $15 million to play starter minutes, what is Alexander going to say when he's paying Asik more millions of dollars than minutes the center is playing per night?
It creates a toxic, no-win situation. Asik is unhappy to be sitting. McHale is unhappy to be dealing with an unhappy Asik. Alexander is frustrated he's doling out all this money. Morey is despondent that his roster is one move away from being a title favorite, but his biggest trade chip is unmovable because of a contract he thought was shrewd in July 2012.
I guess, there's a reason they call it a poison pill after all.
All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise cited.
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