The Houston Rockets struck out in their pursuit of more superstars this summer. But that’s what sluggers do. And a real home run hitter, like general manager Daryl Morey, doesn’t let a whiff or two change his outlook. The Rockets will continue to come out swinging.
"He took a risk and you can't fault him for that," a fellow NBA executive told ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz. "Sometimes the best-laid plans don't work out. But they still landed two max players and kept cap room."
The objective is likely to remain the same in Houston. Houston lost Chandler Parsons to restricted free agency after not matching the Dallas Mavericks’ tricky offer sheet. It also traded Jeremy Lin to the Los Angeles Lakers for nothing to clear room for a Chris Bosh contract that never happened and lost big-man depth by shipping off Omer Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans for a protected first-round pick and more cap space. Despite this, the Rockets will continue hunting for another superstar.
While there's plenty of backlash from fans and haters, Morey is not accepting defeat or relaxing just yet. There’s still plenty of time until the Rockets have to have their roster set for the playoffs again. “You don't win titles by feeling victorious in July, you generally win titles, Morey would tell you, by having three star players and a top ten defense in the league,” says Sean Pendergrast of Houston Press.
Keep in mind that James Harden was acquired via trade just days before the 2012-13 season began, when few league followers even realized Harden was on the trading block. The Rockets’ biggest moves don’t have to happen in the few weeks the NBA’s fans and media have carved out for prime-time free-agency dealings.
But who’s potentially available, who could become that third major piece in Houston?
Two names jump out: Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo.
Love’s desire to be traded from the Minnesota Timberwolves has been public knowledge for months, but Flip Saunders and his front office have yet to receive an offer they can’t refuse. Any team interested in Love is right not to sell the farm for the power forward. His contract is up after next season, so it’s hard to give up much for him.
Love can say all he wants about committing long term, but unless he makes his word law, front offices will have the cautionary tale of Dwight Howard’s failed stint with the Los Angeles Lakers in mind. Morey, especially, knows how little the appearance of emotional faith in a franchise is worth. He was the one to snag Howard from the Lakers, and he also just watched Parsons walk to a better offer despite being a culture-defining player in Houston for years.
If the Rockets are able to land Love, it would likely come midseason. Minnesota seems determined to keep its man and try improving enough next year to repair the relationship with its star. But in the historically deep Western Conference, making the postseason is an unlikely result, and if the Wolves are still on the outside looking in by January 2015, expect them to entertain any and all offers for Love. This is the kind of leverage Morey and other executives are likely to wait for.
Rondo’s contract situation is similar. Set to be a free agent in the summer of 2015, Rondo has been vaguely on the trading block since Celtics general manager Danny Ainge dealt Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets, effectively beginning a franchise rebuild. When Ainge drafted Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State University (another potential starting point guard) with the No. 6 overall pick in last month’s NBA draft, it made a future centered around Rondo at least a shade less likely in Boston.
Rondo’s competitive streak and championship experience would make him a great fit in Houston, where stars Harden and Howard are not known for their motivational skills or leadership. It doesn’t hurt that Rondo is excellent in most dimensions of basketball and that his greatest weakness (shooting) is in no short supply for the Rockets.
Morey is likely to play a similar waiting game for Rondo as he would waiting for Love. Both players will be tough to get a commitment from, so trading for them when Ainge or Saunders are afraid to lose their stars for nothing is the best bet.
This is where the Rockets stand. There’s no reason to believe they’re wavering from their long-known mission of putting their own Big Three together. And, rest assured, the arrival of Washington Wizards swingman Trevor Ariza—a “three-and-D” player who should fill immediate dividends in Houston—does not signal the catch of the missing fish for the Rockets.
This is a franchise that will continue to think big. If it can't land Rondo, Love or any unforeseen mega-targets over the next year, it'll let its assets appreciate for the next available chase. Everyone but Harden and Howard are expendable on a team whose market activity should continue to keep fans at the edge of their seats.