Daryl Morey's departure from the Houston Rockets may seem like a shock, but it didn't come as a surprise to anyone who's been paying attention.
Between yet another disappointing playoff finish in the bubble, Morey's righteous-but-costly tweet in support of Hong Kong, severe pandemic-induced financial troubles for Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and a roster with nowhere to go, the Rockets' parting ways with their general manager of 13 years always seemed the likeliest outcome.
The Rockets are going in-house to replace Morey—whose departure was first reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski—promoting Rafael Stone from executive vice president of basketball operations to GM.
Give Morey credit for this: During a time when many other teams took intentional steps backward to duck the Golden State Warriors, he never ran from that challenge. Morey consistently made moves to contend, not to tank, pushing all his chips to the center first to trade for Harden in 2012, and then to pair him with Dwight Howard in 2013, Chris Paul in 2017 and Russell Westbrook last summer.
They never made it to the Finals (they came close in 2018), but Morey's Rockets were always competitive. They made the playoffs in 10 of his 13 seasons in charge, with the three misses coming only because of Yao Ming's career-ending foot injury, and made the Western Conference Finals twice. Morey was always willing to leverage the future for the present, which often paid off for him but leaves his successor without many options other than to start over.
Going into this particularly unpredictable offseason (the draft is scheduled for Nov. 18, but there are no set dates for free agency or the start of the 2020-21 season), the Rockets are in a tough spot. They have no cap space to add free agents, with Harden and Westbrook alone owed north of $40 million annually apiece for the next two seasons (plus player options for the following year). Morey gave up two first-round selections and handed OKC the rights to two pick swaps last July to acquire Westbrook, so their ability to build through the draft is limited.
After trading starting center Clint Capela at February's deadline, the Rockets don't have much in the way of promising young talent to develop. Most of their rotation players beyond their two stars are veterans such as Eric Gordon, Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker, not prospects with long NBA futures. And after emptying the vaults for Westbrook last summer and Covington at the deadline, they have nothing left to trade to improve next year's roster.
Stone's first task will be hiring a new coach after Mike D'Antoni's departure, and his choice will be telling. If he goes for a big name (Jeff Van Gundy has been linked to the job, and previous front-runner Tyronn Lue is newly off the market, per Wojnarowski), it probably means they're going to run it back. If Fertitta decides he doesn't want to pay the salary one of those established coaches will command and they hire an assistant like the Los Angeles Clippers' Sam Cassell or Denver Nuggets' Wes Unseld Jr., it could signal a willingness to rebuild.
As it stands, this group is what it's going to be. Keeping this roster intact is risky—Harden and Westbrook enter next season a year older, each on the wrong side of 30, and the Western Conference field includes not only the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and other returning contenders such as the Clippers and Nuggets, but also a resurrected Warriors team that was out of the picture this year because of injuries to Stephen Curry (hand) and Klay Thompson (torn ACL).
As unappealing as it may be to shift gears and reset, that may be Stone's best course. And that means seeing what he can get for Harden and Westbrook.
Trading Westbrook will be tough. But if Harden, a top-five player in the league and perennial MVP candidate, is available, there will be interest. He's the kind of player teams trade everything not nailed down for, especially clubs like the New York Knicks, who are desperate for relevance. Any Eastern Conference team instantly becomes a contender with Harden. The kinds of picks and prospects the Rockets could get for him would make the pill of a rebuild much easier to swallow.
Morey never stopped trying to win. He made moves at every turn to surround Harden with enough talent to compete. In the end, it amounted to years of coming up just short.
Now that he's gone, his successor will have an opportunity to start fresh. But that could mean doing the unthinkable and moving on from one of the greatest players in franchise history.
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.