Now that the Rockets are a few days removed from both a disappointing end to their time in the NBA bubble and the loss of their coach, Mike D'Antoni, who chose to head into free agency elsewhere, the offseason is fully upon the Houston franchise and owner Tilman Fertitta. That brings up a lot of questions, starting most notably with the team's general manager, Daryl Morey.
Morey has grown to be one of the more well respected GMs in the league, but he is not without his detractors. Many of his broader team concepts (small ball), dedication to modern analytics and the way he deftly manipulates the salary cap (sometimes to the chagrin of other GMs and the league) are both wildly progressive and also somewhat controversial. And fans remain split on how they feel about Morey as well, though his affable, down-to-earth personality and rather open approach makes any qualms with his team's performance a bit easier to stomach.
Still, it had been reported he was under review, at least until Tuesday when Fertitta, appearing on his weekly CNBC show, announced that Morey's job is safe and "I'm sure he will pick the right head coach."
The rather feisty team owner is noted for his aggressive negotiations, and there have been reports that his handling of D'Antoni's contract negotiations last offseason led, at least in part, to the coach's ultimate departure. But, Morey is under contract for two more seasons, a fact of which Fertitta is most definitely aware. Having to hand over money to his GM after firing him would seem anathema to the restaurant mogul's general approach to business.
It also may be true that the pandemic-altered season had some impact on Morey's overall review. The Rockets never really had a chance to develop the small ball philosophy they dropped onto the NBA at the trading deadline. And, even with the acquisitions, it felt a bit like there was unfinished business. Like the team was one man short (no pun intended).
Most importantly, Morey is hitched to James Harden, who has a couple more seasons remaining on his contract. He and backcourt mate Russell Westbrook are reaching the end of their peaks, not because of any noticeable diminishing of their games, but simply because Mother Nature is, ultimately, undefeated. It would make sense to let the team's GM ride this out and see what happens rather than blow it up now with the team mired in max deals.
There is something else of note: Morey is good at what he does. Had he been fired, teams would line up for a crack at the guy who has become and innovator when it comes to managing assets, making deals and handles the salary cap, often finding loopholes the league's experts didn't know existed. He didn't get the nickname "Wizard" for nothing. And fans should be wary of their desire to wipe the decks clean after a few frustrating seasons.
Before this season, the Rockets were, arguably, the second best team in basketball. When the best is Golden State, an all-time great team, that's not total failure. It's disappointing, but when Tiger Woods was on the course, somebody had to be Phil Mickelson.
And in the midst of all that, Morey pulled off some astonishing deals to improve the team while consistently finding diamonds in the rough that often pay significant dividends on the floor. Whatever you might think of his overall philosophy, he is regarded as one of the best at his job for a reason.
This offseason, however, he will need every one of the tricks he carries up his sleeve. The team is capped out and they don't have any draft picks to work with. Even for the Wizard, this offseason will be arduous.
It begins with a new coach and ends with putting the best roster possible around Harden and Westbrook to see if they can legitimately make a run at a championship in the years they have remaining together in Houston.
Tilman Fertitta has put his faith in Morey for at least another season, and it seems warranted, never mind prudent. But the Rockets GM knows the next couple of years will likely be the most challenging of his career and could define dare we call it his "legacy." His owner is notably impatient (and rightfully so in a competitive sport). The Wizard better figure out how to pull another rabbit out of his hat or his job won't be safe for long.
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