Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey Faces Biggest Test of His Career

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IDecember 13, 2011

Welcome to the abridged training camp straight from Daryl Morey’s nightmares. The NBA scotched a trade late Thursday that would have delivered Pau Gasol to the Toyota Center’s front door step.

The Rockets players included in the blockbuster that wasn’t—Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and Goran Dragic—know management wishes the trio was in New Orleans. The front office tried to resuscitate the transaction over the weekend, but the Lakers, the team eyeing Hornets crown jewel Chris Paul, backed out to look elsewhere.

Head coach Kevin McHale and Morey entered damage control mode with three integral players they tried to move twice in a three-day span. Martin will act with professionalism and class until the day his Houston tenure concludes; but call off the detectives sent to investigate how he really feels about this stunning fiasco.

“Daryl showed his cards,” Martin told the Houston Chronicle.

Those cards portend unhappy, on edge campers and a still undersized lineup now missing the 6-foot-6, fan favorite starter from a year ago. Merry Christmas, Mr. Moneyball.

Not even Advil can cure this headache.

Morey works the phones like a telemarketer, forever in pursuit of the roster improvements that will vault the Rockets back into the championship conversation. The team enjoyed a transient stay in the league’s title talk during the Yao Ming-Tracy McGrady experiment.

The oft-injured stars could not deliver on their immense promise as a post-perimeter tandem and reached the second round once in their heartbreaking, snake-bitten tenure. That series victory versus Portland, of course, came with McGrady watching from afar after having had micro-fracture surgery.

If the relentless chase to find the next foundation player(s) has caused Morey to burn up phone lines in past seasons, it would serve the team’s staff to keep the fire department handy and maybe the bomb squad, too.

He yearns to produce the loudest, grandest fireworks since the Hakeem Olajuwon era concluded, and now he is guaranteed to inspire oohs and ahs. His job and legacy will hang on the cause and nature of that inevitable reaction. Will fans gawk after a spectacular implosion, or can he pull off the sort of explosive coup that sparked media frenzies in Miami and New York?

The middle ground and gray areas fade now, leaving Morey with migraine-inducing, equally dangerous options. Each choice carries both tremendous risk and a tantalizing potential reward.

If anyone questioned owner Leslie Alexander’s faith in his GM, parting ways with a future Hall-of-Fame coach in Rick Adelman should have put the skepticism to bed. That trust runs deep because Morey and Alexander have made it clear each wants to win as much as the other.

The two men work non-stop to arrive at the same sacred place. They crave the same future paved with gold.

Cradling a third Larry O’Brien Trophy, though, requires a lot more than a destination address and a GPS. The continued treacherous journey will test Morey in every way possible. 

This is not the SATs or the bar exam. Studying up does not guarantee a passing score. How he fares depends on his peers as much as himself. As has been published in this space ad nauseum, Morey cannot force a rival executive to surrender a franchise player—unless, of course, he’s willing to pull a gun and serve life in prison.

Good luck with that. I didn’t think so.

He can’t even deal two of his best players for a future Hall-of-Fame Spaniard without stepping in David Stern’s bull poop.

The inability to secure a superstar anchor isn’t his fault. Yet, that does not change the mandate to find the next Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant.

Win or go home. TNT’s NBA Playoffs slogan applies to front offices and coaches, too. The GM a few blocks down paid the price for an embarrassing season and a mess he did not create. Ed Wade’s work was far from faultless, but he tried during his years in Houston to ameliorate the hopeless Astros’ prospects.

Yoda could have carved out a broadcasting career with ESPN. There is no try in sports. It doesn’t work that way, no matter how unfair or unjust that reality seems.

Bosses hire people, and they expect results. Screw the details and the hurdles. What a CEO lauds one day becomes grounds for dismissal the next. Welcome to life at any level of collegiate or professional sports.

Judgment day, or year, arrives for Morey, who wants to lift the franchise out of its 40-something-win rut. The Rockets did not strive for mediocrity, but they are mediocre. Houston is the last-place squad in the NBA’s best division.

The outlook would appear rosier if a garbage outfit or two occupied the Southwest den, or if the Rockets resided in the East instead of the West. Alas, Stern does not dole out sympathy wins or combat inequities with temporary conference re-alignments.

Morey must play the hand dealt to him. That means competing in the tougher bracket of 15 teams and in a brutal division with three potential champions, including the reigning ones.

The three-team trade was a first step for the Rockets, according to the Chronicle. The Houston brass intended to use Gasol to lure frontcourt partners with sex appeal. The deal would have created the cap space necessary to ink prized Denver Nuggets free agent center Nene Hilario. Morey also wanted to re-sign hustle hound Chuck Hayes.

With that scenario flushed down the toilet for good, and Pau Gasol’s brother, Marc, out of the picture, Morey must traverse the tough road back to contention.

If the league slaughtered the Rockets’ first attempt to ship Martin, Scola and Dragic to the Big Easy, Stern will shoot down any package of that sort aimed at acquiring Paul.

Will Houston ever become a serious challenger in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes? Not with this nice but unspectacular roster.

Howard, Alexander and Morey are at least aligned on one thing: that chasing championships beats playing hard. Winning a title, of course, requires immense effort. The Rockets aren’t special just because they demonstrate immeasurable heart in the face of a puny frontcourt, constant personnel upheaval and the deterioration and departures of Yao and McGrady.

The Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat also played really hard. They scored something substantial for the trouble, too—banners and one shiny Larry O’Brien Trophy for the defiant Mavs. Indignant Houston fans see these comments as cruel slams. We all must be closet Rockets haters, right?

Deep down, even my fellow die-hard supporters know the truth. This team might grab the eighth seed but will lose in four or five in the first round. Just securing a playoff berth, given the wealth of opponents with eyes fixed on the same thing, necessitates heaping helpings of luck and overachievement.

No one associated with the Rockets wants to continue down this fruitless path. Morey is chief among them.

He has tired of Aprils, Mays and Junes in which his squad remains an afterthought. If only Red Nation could construct its own super team for everyone outside the city limits to detest.

Morey’s car is parked at the intersection of wistful and screwed. Beyond everyone else in the association knowing how desperate he is to acquire a seven-foot center, he has created a pesky credibility problem.

Can he expect any free agent to trust his sales pitches now, given that he has offered up everyone on the roster on multiple occasions? How would you like to become the next 82-game centerpiece?

Remember when he took a flier on Trevor Ariza as a potential building block? Morey dealt the forward one season into his five-year deal.

Remember when Aaron Brooks looked like the franchise’s speeding bullet of the future? The free agent guard, months after his earned plane ticket to Phoenix, remains in China, chained to the contract he signed during the lockout.

Or how about this familiar quote after a four-team deal last year: “We’ve liked Courtney Lee since the draft,” Morey told the Chronicle. The Rockets did not swap Lee, but tidbits like this one surfaced up until the trade deadline.

The GM pursued Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and, more recently, Paul, Tyson Chandler, the Gasol brothers and Nene all to no avail. Where does a handcuffed man go from here?

Does winning a series of smaller moves matter if they fail to yield the big one that will shake this franchise at its foundation, or better yet, give it one?

He cannot ace this test with a pencil and a Scantron. He cannot cure his headache with an over-the-counter drug in a bottle.

Morey needs to produce a miracle at Polk and LaBranch streets, and he needs one soon. If not now—with a heralded 2012 draft and free agent class approaching—when?


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