Trust the Process

Daryl Morey has been blasted for his handling of an offseason which saw the Rockets lose Chandler Parsons to the Mavericks and fail to land either of their big targets – Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh. Morey chose to allow Parsons to hit free agency a year early as a restricted free agent (Parsons would have been unrestricted had he been a free agent next offseason), and waiting for Melo and Bosh to make their decisions gave Dallas the window it needed to feel comfortable making their offer.

Now Houston must move forward without their starting small forward or either of their top free agency targets, plus quality pieces in Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, both of whom were dumped to clear cap space for moves this summer. Suffice it to say things didn’t go as planned for Morey.

Whether it’s because of the spotlight on a roster now featuring James Harden and Dwight Howard or simply a matter of people being tired of hearing about Morey’s brilliance, the backlash over an unproductive dip into the free agency pool has been substantial this year. Much has been written questioning Morey’s approach, culminating in this article,  which paints him as something of a con artist, using analytics to blind the media and hide his mediocre results.

The stakes may be higher now that Harden and Howard are in the fold, but Morey and the Rockets have been operating this way for years, for better and for worse. Quibble all you want with the strategy and the outcomes from year to year, but Houston knows how it wants to treat its cap situation and what it wants out of its team, and Morey devised a way to make that happen sometime around 2009. The franchise hasn’t deviated from the plan since.

The process is always the same: acquire assets whenever possible, using a better-than-average understanding of the CBA to bully other teams out of valuable players and picks (like Morey did when signing Asik and Lin, both of whom received contracts structured to make it nearly impossible for the Bulls and Knicks to match their offers), just as long as picking up assets never got in the way of keeping the cap space to sign maximum contracts within reach.

That approach is how Houston landed Harden from the Thunder. No other team could offer Oklahoma City a package of young players, draft picks, and useful expiring contracts. It’s also how they were able to keep their cap clear enough to land Howard.

It’s worth noting that this wasn’t the first free agency period in which the team struck out on their top targets. Morey chased Bosh (and others) in 2010, only to come up empty. At that time he was left with a roster built to complement Yao Ming, who would barely ever play again. The Rockets limped through the strike-shortened season that followed, but with Yao gone a rebuild was necessary, and the cap was clean enough to facilitate one.

Assets like Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic went out, and some interesting pieces came back, including a future first-round pick from Toronto that helped seal the Harden deal. While it’s fair to point out that Lowry and Dragic have improved significantly since their time in Houston, it’s also important to see that their departures helped reel in Harden, and the extra cap room (and improved team) got them Howard.

Results can be variable, but Morey continues to successfully operate by his guiding team-building principles. In each of the last three seasons the team’s winning percentage has increased, from .515 in 2011/12 to .549 in 2012/13, and finally all the way up to .659 last season. Not bad for a guy who inherited the crumbling McGrady/Yao Rockets and managed to complete an on-the-fly rebuild without ever dipping below .500.

Now the question is not if the team can make the playoffs, but rather how they can win a title. That’s not a bad leap, and one unsuccessful free agency period isn’t going to change that.

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