It wasn't long ago that the Rockets were lusting after their current position from afar, trying to escape the torment of mediocrity, stuck in a lottery-dwelling rut. Look at them now.
The Rockets are battling for a top-three spot in the Western Conference, pacing themselves toward 55 wins for the first time since 2007-08, when they were headlined by Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.
Out West, where the competition is fierce and the margin for error slim, the Rockets are once again contenders, borne out of general manager Daryl Morey's genius after a brief and successful transition so many teams spend more time waging without ever duplicating.
From Lockout-Truncated Mediocrity to Controlled Demolition
Look back to that 2011-12 Rockets team and it looks nothing like the Rockets of today.
Luis Scola topped Houston in minutes played, Kevin Martin led the team in scoring and Goran Dragic was playing second fiddle to Kyle Lowry when he was healthy. Courtney Lee was a rotation staple, Chandler Parsons was a rookie showing some promise and Jonny Flynn was actually on the team.
By no means were those Rockets bad. They were just there, finishing two games over .500 and missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
Then, Morey went to work.
Immediately after Houston's season ended, Morey began stockpiling draft picks and making aggressive plays for better talent. He turned Chase Budinger into a first-rounder that became Terrence Jones. He used Samuel Dalembert and Houston's No. 14 pick to move up two spots in the draft, where he selected Jeremy Lamb at No. 12.
Next, Morey traded Lowry to the Toronto Raptors in a deal built around a 2013 first-rounder. He let Goran Dragic walk in free agency. He traded Marcus Camby. He waived Luis Scola. He signed Jeremy Lin. He signed Omer Asik.
He dismantled that 34-32 team.
Curiosity Turns to Triumph
Morey and the Rockets' direction did not go unquestioned.
Asik and Lin were both coming off stellar and surprising seasons with the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks, respectively, but they, along with Martin and an infusion of young, developing draft picks, didn't make for a good basketball team.
Scott Machado figured to be a part of the rotation, after all. The 2012-13 Rockets were going to be as middling as the 2011-12 Rockets, if not worse.
But Morey wasn't done.
The Rockets had their superstar.
Then he played like one.
On the backs of Harden's breakout season, Asik's nightly double-doubles, Parsons' offensive explosion and a system so fast and unadulterated it ranked sixth in offensive efficiency, the Rockets ended their brief playoff drought.
Eighth place was nothing to trumpet and the Lin-Harden pairing had obvious flaws, but it was enough. Putting up an admirable fight against the Westbrook-less Thunder in the playoffs was enough.
Morey landed the Rockets a palpable building block without forking over Parsons, all while making understated moves on the side—signing Patrick Beverley—and putting Houston in a position of increasing power and flexibility.
More Star Power
Entering the 2013 offseason, the Rockets had money to burn, in part because Morey was shrewd enough to trade players such as Patrick Patterson, Toney Douglas and Marcus Morris months before.
Waiving Aaron Brooks and Carlos Delfino gave them even more money to burn. Dumping Thomas Robinson gave them even more. Trading defunct first-round pick Royce White gave them even more still.
How much more?
Just like that, the Rockets had two superstars. Not one. Two.
In less than a year, a team with no established luminaries had a pair of arguably top-10 superstars and it didn't have to relinquish its most prized in-house prospect (Parsons) to land either of them.
Capitalizing on Oklahoma City's desperation and Howard's distaste for Los Angeles, Houston went from lottery-dwelling mediocrity to modest playoff team to championship contender—almost overnight.
Reaping the Benefits
Not even a year into the Harden-Howard experiment, it's clear Houston is an elite team here to stay.
None of this is to say the Rockets are perfect. They aren't. Asik is useless with Howard on the roster and both his and Lin's back-loaded contracts are cap-sapping eyesores. Gambling on White at No. 16 in the 2012 draft wasn't Houston's finest moment, either.
However, look at what the Rockets are now in spite of all that.
Harden still ranks in the top five of points per game, Lin has proven serviceable and more efficient in less playing time, Parsons remains a budding perimeter star, Beverley is making a case for himself as another one of Morey's unexpected treasures and Jones has made the leap from seldom-used rookie to everyday starter.
Then there's Howard, who has left the drama of Los Angeles behind him in favor of playing the type of basketball he was meant to play: carefree
Houston's offense has actually improved too, creeping into the top five of efficiency. Moreover, its defense is no longer porous and inconsistent. Anchored by Howard's increased mobility, the Rockets rank 12th in defensive efficiency, which is no small feat given that they also rank sixth in possessions used per 48 minutes.
All of this has left the Rockets where they are now, near the top of the Western Conference, in position to fight for a championship.
While other teams lumber and slog through extended and ineffective rebuilding periods, Morey and the Rockets expedited theirs. By hoarding draft picks, shedding salary and retaining younger prospects, they were able to escape mediocrity quickly through blockbuster trades and free-agency gambits.
The Rockets are proof that works. They're evidence that it doesn't take years of losing to reinvent an entire franchise.
"We feel like as a team, we are coming together at the right time," Morey told reporters about the Rockets' decision to remain relatively inactive at the trade deadline.
Having come together, the Rockets are winning together, barely resembling the team of less than two years ago in the most satisfying way possible.
Stats and transaction information courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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