NBA Purgatory

Neither the best nor the worst, the Rockets remain stuck in professional basketball's great midsection.

CHASE BUDINGER, small forward (acquired Draft Night 2009): Light on picks in the 2009 draft, Morey made a handful of deals to pick up the rights to some second-round players, including Budinger (the 44th overall pick), who had been drafted by the Pistons. (Ironically, through more trades in subsequent seasons, Morey would acquire four lottery players from the 2009 Draft. More on this later.)

KEVIN MARTIN, shooting guard (acquired February 18, 2010): On the same day that the Tracy McGrady Era in Houston came to its merciful conclusion, Morey acquired from Sacramento Martin, a perennial 20-point-a-game scorer but a sieve on defense, for Carl Landry and Joey Dorsey.

SAMUEL DALEMBERT, center (acquired December 24, 2011): In desperate need of players (a) over seven feet tall and (b) with a pulse, and having been shut out of the Tyson Chandler-Nenê-DeAndre Jordan buffet, the Rockets settled on a one-year deal for $7 million (with a team option for a second year) with Dalembert. This was the NBA free-agency equivalent of two drunks at a bar looking for some love and both realizing "DAMN...it's 2:30 in the morning...I better JUMP ON THIS..."

Fate and the league have not made it easy for Daryl Morey to build a championship team.
Troy Fields
Fate and the league have not made it easy for Daryl Morey to build a championship team.
New head coach Kevin McHale hopes to get the Rockets to play some defense this season.
Groovehouse
New head coach Kevin McHale hopes to get the Rockets to play some defense this season.

So if you're keeping score at home, in a league where even the bad teams have a lottery player or two (some have more) in their starting lineups, the Rockets start five players who were the 56th, 24th, 44th, 26th, and 26th players drafted in their respective draft classes. Plucky overachievers.

If you're curious how high the achievement level can be of a team whose starting lineup carries that pedigree, head to Toyota Center and watch the Rockets. They squeeze every possible ounce of success they can from the limited "star level" talent on the roster. The talent level is good enough to compete, but not to win, at least not prolifically enough to be relevant.

But Daryl Morey has tried for three years now to acquire that elite-level player, and until the day that superstar becomes available, this team is assembled to be disassembled. Quickly.

On December 8, Morey thought that day had arrived. We all thought finally, finally, the thermometer would move off of 40 degrees.

I frequently use the term "above the line" to describe people who make a difference in any walk of life, people who move the needle. Think of whatever line of work you're in, and think of the handful of indispensable, virtually impossible-to-replace people with your company. In my vernacular, these people are "above the line." And yes, everyone else is, theoretically, "below the line."

That's how it works in the NBA. There are a small handful of players "above the line," and the cover charge for a team to get past the velvet rope of "mere playoff team" and into the VIP room of "elite championship contender" is a minimum of one "above the line" player.

In the NBA, that list is not long. I would say the following players are "above the line" (in no particular order):

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, Deron Williams, Blake Griffin, Zach Randolph, when-healthy Kevin Garnett, and Pau Gasol.

You acquire the services of one of these guys by either (a) sucking horribly and winning the draft lottery; (b) existing in one of the aforementioned desirable locales and having a player sign with your team as a free agent, or strong-arming his team into trading him to you; or (c) stockpiling assets and making a deal (the good ol'-fashioned way).

On December 8, Daryl Morey finally got his chance to get a guy who is "above the line."

As part of a three-team deal that would have sent Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers and Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, and Lamar Odom to the league-owned New Orleans Hornets, Pau Gasol was to have become a Houston Rocket. This would potentially be followed by another move, like signing Nenê (heavily rumored). In other words, all of a sudden, the team would have been a contender again.

But in a sweeping move as crooked as anything you'd see on WWE pay-per-view, commissioner David Stern, acting in what he said was the "best interests of the Hornets," nixed the deal, a deal that was made by the general manager that he and the other owners had empowered. The only thing missing was David Stern hitting Morey with a chair and then announcing that Morey would have to beat Metta World Peace in a cage match, or else Kyle Lowry would become a Los Angeles Laker.

As it turns out, the Hornets went on to cut an even better deal for Paul with the Clippers, who are now one of the five most fun teams in the league to watch. And though the Lakers had to move Lamar Odom (whose feelings were apparently hurt), they continue to thrive as a Western Conference contender.

Meanwhile, the Rockets had to awkwardly begin training camp with Scola and Martin back in the fold. Even worse, Morey was left back at square one. Imagine the most intricate, tedious science project you ever had to complete. Imagine that it took three years to finish, but after many sleepless nights, you were finally done and the end product was of solid A- quality. Well, the Gasol trade was Morey's three-year science project.

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6 comments
HTown
HTown

If you look at the all the NBA champions since 1980, all the teams had at least one superstar. There may be one exception with the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons that real good starting five. So, based on the last 30 years a superstar is pretty much needed to win a championship. The Rockets do not have that super star.

thetruthsports
thetruthsports

The Rockets are ONE exceptional basketball player away from being the best team in the West, and until they get that player, being your favorite basketball teams, favorite basketball team, will continue

Polly Jenkins
Polly Jenkins

Of course luck has a lot to do about it but skill is in there too.

nobody
nobody

When Morey got to town, he inherited a team that had most of its salary tied up in two players (Yao and T-Mac). Using the very little wiggle room he had to work with, he assembled a remarkable amount of talent on the cheap: Scola, Lowry, Budinger, Hayes et al.

But that could only get him so far. He was forced to gamble that Yao would return to full strength. And it was a gamble that he obviously lost. This was, and to a large extent remains, a team built to revolve around a superstar that we no longer have.

So here we are: a franchise with arguably the best supporting cast in the league, with no centerpiece.

I understand King's sentiments about Morey. Until recently, I somewhat shared them. That changed when Morey had the deal in place for Gasol. Remember: the only reason it didn't happen was because of Stern.

I remain a believer in Morey. It's not just because he's playing Moneyball, although that's a big part of it. He understands the intangibles in finding good players, thinks strategically, always works several moves ahead.

Yeah, this season is gonna be rough. But I'm sticking with my team. And In Morey I Trust.

KING
KING

Never thought I'd say this, but it may be time to start looking at Morey as a possible source of these problems. Houston isn't L.A. and New York, but it sure as hell is a lot better than Oklahoma City. You're right in saying the team in its current make-up is built to be broken down, but that doesn't mean you still can't put a quality product on the floor. The trade pieces are there, but what's left if Morey does finally obtain a superstar? Two of last year's team captains are gone. The team is young and directionless and without a core in place to entice any superstar to want to come here.

Yao and McGrady were bad breaks. That's excusable. But those problems became evident SEVERAL seasons ago. There's no excuse for the fourth largest city in the country with a good infrastructure and flexible owner in place to not have a contending team.

Yeah, the pieces on the floor are not the answer, that's obvious. But it's time to start questioning whether the man putting these pieces together is the one to do it.

As String would say, 'There's games beyond the fuckin' game.'

Guest
Guest

That's insane. This proves what people have been saying about the league for years. Luck is more important than anything in the NBA.

The Bulls get Rose but the Wizards get stuck with John Wall, Blazers get Oden and the Thunder get Durant. The Rockets got their luck with Yao from the 12th pick position up to #1. The Spurs get Duncan...it happens over and over. Blaming Morey for not being able to fool a GM into a Pau Gasol to the Lakers deal isn't reasonable.

It looks like we'll have to take a shot on a player like Cousins or the like and make it a boom/bust thing.

 
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