The Fatal Flaw in Daryl Morey's Master Plan for Houston Rockets

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistJuly 18, 2014

HOUSTON - JUNE 25: Daryl Morey (GM of the Houston Rockets) speaks during a press conference to announce Patrick Patterson after he was drafted by the Rockets at the Toyota Center on June 25, 2010 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2010 NBAE  (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Whenever he calls it a career, chances are Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey will leave with a mixed legacy.

At the moment, the question is whether he'll also leave with a championship.

His organization still has a ways to go in that pursuit, and it almost certainly took a significant step back this summer. Always eager to make a superstar splash, Morey made a risky bid to land Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh this summer. ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard suggests Houston offered him a four-year, $88 million deal.

It was risky because it first required Houston to trade away key reserves Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik in an attempt to clear the cap space needed to sign Bosh. The thinking was that the 30-year-old would bolt Miami if and when LeBron James did the same.

When all was said and done, James left.

Bosh didn't.

In turn, Houston whiffed on its primary pursuit and lost two useful pieces of the rotation in the process. Then it lost a third upon declining to match the Dallas Mavericks' offer to up-and-coming restricted free agent Chandler Parsons.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

The only silver lining thus far has been the sign-and-trade acquisition of swingman Trevor Ariza, a solid but unspectacular replacement for Parsons.

ESPN.com's Kevin Arnowitz sums up the sequence, writing, "In the eyes of his critics, Houston's offseason amounts to dealing Chandler ParsonsOmer AsikJeremy Lin, a first-round draft pick and a second-round draft pick for Trevor Ariza, a first-round pick and a trade exception."

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 04:  Jeremy Lin #7 of the Houston Rockets points down court against the Oklahoma City Thunder during a game at the Toyota Center on April 4, 2014 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by download
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Not exactly an upgrade or what Morey originally had in mind.

However, it isn't an especially surprising outcome either given this GM's standard operating procedure.

Arnowitz cites one general manager who, "characterized much of the criticism [of Morey] as sheer jealousy, but added that there's a growing perception around the league that Morey treats his players as assets in a game of arbitrage, something that's alienating players and their representatives."

The notion that Morey views players as little more than assets seems more reality than perception at this point.

Despite the value that Lin and Asik obviously brought to the rotation at their respective positions, they were quickly dealt when the opportunity to land a bigger name arose. Morey let Parsons walk when a cheaper alternative came along, largely to preserve future cap flexibility in the ongoing pursuit of a third star to pair with James Harden and Dwight Howard.

This kind of thinking makes a good bit of sense coming from one of the guys who's popularized the analytics movement. As the logic goes, every player is worth a certain price based on their productivity and efficiencyparticularly as it's measured by variables like estimated wins added.

A player's value is reduced to a series of numbers, tangible and ostensibly objective indicators. 

Some important things are lost in the equation.

Retaining players means stability and familiarity. It means maintaining a certain measure of institutional or corporate knowledge, improving continuity from one season to the next.

The more a player learns a system and grows accustomed to teammates, the better that player performs.

Similarly, there are countless intangible benefits to a franchise keeping strong performers in the family on multiyear deals. It builds confidence and a sense of loyalty, the kinds of factors that remind players they're working toward a collective endeavor, embarking upon a project that goes beyond paychecks and practice routines.

If all that sounds like the domain of psychologists or sociologists, welcome to the modern management of human resources.

Yes, there are plenty of numbers involved. But there are also things that go beyond metrics.

Things that don't seem to interest Morey.

Consider the comments Parsons made in the wake of Houston's refusal to match Dallas' offer.

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 20:  Chandler Parsons #25 of the Houston Rockets stretches before the game against the Portland Trail Blazers before Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on April 20, 2014 at the Toyota Center i
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

"I viewed myself as an up and coming star in this league. They were the ones that made the offer and look at me like a franchise-max player. That's what I wanted. I want to be a priority," he told Fox 26 Sports.

Had Morey actually made Parsons a priority, there's no telling how much he might have improved. Alas, Parsons was a second-round pick who'd grown into a solid complementary player in Morey's eyes. He wasn't a superstar and had yet to put up superstar numbers.

A vote of confidence from the Rockets might have gone a long way.

Instead, the Mavericks will reap the benefits, and don't be surprised if the best of Chandler Parsons is still to come. It just won't come with the Rockets, who ultimately rubbed Parsons the wrong way.

Parsons spoke about the situation with Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears:

Honestly, I was offended by the whole process. They publicly said that they were going out looking for a third star when I thought they had one right in front of them. I guess that's just how they viewed me as a player. I don't think I've scratched the surface of where I can be as a player and I think I'm ready for that role.

People do their jobs better when they feel valued. The NBA is no different.

So long as Morey continues to pursue star talent at virtually any cost, his players probably won't feel the love. They'll feel like assets because—in several important instances—that's how they've been treated.

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 29: General Manager Daryl Morey and James Harden of the Houston Rockets poses for a photo as Harden is introduced to the media on October 29, 2012 at Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

That's surely how Lin felt before he was officially traded. Though it may not have been Morey's direct decision, someone on Houston's management team thought it would be a good idea to put Lin's No. 7 on a graphic showing Carmelo Anthony in a Rockets uniform:

This was of course part of the team's attempt to recruit Anthony—the stat they coveted even before Bosh.

Morey later defended the tactic as "standard practice."

In other words, business as usual for a guy who's all about business. 

There's also a danger that Morey's strategy borders on overconfidence. After all, letting Parsons walk was ultimately premised on the belief that someone better would come along. If not this summer, then soon enough.

In a special to ESPN.com, Jason Friedman wrote:

For now, though, the Rockets must live with their misstep. And given the belief in some circles that Houston’s brain trust routinely exhibits a confidence bordering on arrogance, rest assured there exists a sizable faction of NBA execs and insiders who could not be happier at how this past weekend’s events unfolded.

A "confidence bordering on arrogance"? Sound harsh?

Arnowitz quoted "one front-office executive" as saying, "Daryl wants everyone to think he's the smartest person in the room -- and he is smart, no doubt. But let your influence speak for itself. Stop taking victory laps."

Needless to say, there will be no victory laps this summer.

However, it's telling that these are the kinds of words others in the industry use to describe Morey's operation. It's telling that his maneuvering has generated genuine resentment around the league, at least among some.

In a business world where cultivating relationships is an important element of success, Morey's approach is closer to that of an accountant than manager. He understands the numbers as well as anyone in the game, but treating people like numbers is what put him in this predicament.

So long as people are the ones playing the game, considering free-agent pitches and taking trade calls, that's a problem for Morey.

Things like trust and loyalty matter. They aren't antiquated concepts from the league's Golden Age. They're alive and well in successful corners like the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, franchises that treasure organizational continuity.

Cutting-edge as Morey's approach to metrics has been, his management of the Rockets is perilously close to backfiring. He has two superstars, but far more questions than answers.

Improvement from up-and-comers like Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley may ease the blow of what was lost this summer, but a championship now appears further away than it did a season ago—especially in a crowded Western Conference that's only grown more competitive.

Morey can change all that—perhaps at the trade deadline, perhaps next summer—but the biggest change he could make is how he does business. 

Until Morey internalizes one simple fact of NBA existence, his still-talented Rockets will remain on the outside looking in.

Assets don't win championships. People do.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.