A lot has transpired since we last caught up with Rockets GM Daryl Morey. During that time, the team enjoyed its finest win of the season (on the road against Phoenix) and its worst (this past Monday, in Philadelphia). Considering the team’s roller coaster nature to date, none of this should come as a surprise.
The ride continued last night at Toyota Center, culminating in a difficult to decipher 80-77 victory over Detroit. Was it one of those hard fought, slump-snapping wins that will one day be seen as a turning point? Or was it merely further proof that Houston remains a tragically flawed two-man team?
Either way, it seemed like the perfect time to sit down with Morey and get his thoughts on the current state of affairs. What follows is the transcript of our conversation:
JCF: So I hate to rain on the parade after a big win, but I’ve got to ask: What’s this team missing? Besides nearly 60 percent of its shots, of course.
DM: Shooting has been our biggest issue. We feel like we have some assets to improve that and actually one of the adjustments happened tonight in terms of playing Luther Head. There was actually more to it than our best shooters not playing, but frankly overall it doesn’t get much more complicated than that either. We had our best shooter last year [Head] not playing. That has a trickle down effect: Yao getting doubled, and Tracy getting doubled on the same plays. In the Philly game, Yao had four guys around him once. So not only was Luther and Shane [Battier] our most efficient offense last year in terms of them hitting their threes, they opened up the floor for both those guys [Yao and T-Mac]. That’s an adjustment that we’ve made and we also want to get back to playing strong defense. That was another thing we focused on and did tonight.
JCF: So I guess we can expect to see more of Luther Head going forward?
DM: Yeah, I mean every guard—except for Aaron [Brooks]—up to this point has gotten a real chance to show what they can do except Luther. We’re not winning, so Luther is getting his shot.
JCF: On a scale of 1-10, how worried are you right now?
DM: What are you Bill Simmons now? I’m not JackO, ya know [laughs].
JCF: Well, actually I’ve been meaning to put you on a podcast and try to compete with those two…
DM: Sure. Well, to answer your question, you can look at things half-full or half-empty. The half-full is we’ve played a top-5 schedule—by the end of this month, it’ll definitely be the hardest schedule, I think we’re third right now—we’re 12-11 against that. We’ve played the best against the hard schedule, of any other teams in the league. We feel like we have a roster we know we can compete with, that when healthy last year was on a 55-60 win pace. So we just need to get everyone focused to play in the right direction. Rick’s been to the Finals twice, and he’s the right guy to lead us out.
JCF: But how worried are you? Or are you not worried at all?
DM: Given the fact that we’re right at this moment not in the playoffs, there’s always somewhere… I think until you’re one of the eight—and we obviously aspire to be much better than that—you worry. I think there’s a lot with our execution that needs to be improved. There’s a lot with our rotations. You know, Rick is learning about the team—what works, what doesn’t work—and that’s a process. And the players are learning what works inside of Rick’s system. We knew there’d be an adjustment period. We had hoped it would be less than what we’ve faced so far, but if we play strong from here on out as we plan, we’ll be back on track.
JCF: I know everyone within the organization expected an adjustment period with all the new faces this year. But do you think that angle is a little overblown, especially when you see a team like the Celtics—who have arguably had more of an overhaul than anyone—come flying out of the gate?
DM: We had hoped we’d avoid it [the adjustment period] when we were 6-1. That turned out to be, arguably, more problematic than helpful. Rick and I saw issues, but the record sort of masked them, but then they manifested themselves; especially recently. I mean, the Celtics are playing elite. I think they absolutely make the case that there doesn’t have to be an adjustment period. We worked hard to not have that, but the reality is we did.
JCF: So would you say that in some ways this slump hasn’t caught you off guard, since the warning signs were there even during the hot start?
DM: Yeah, our offense has been poor and continues to be poor, and that was something that we were absolutely hoping would be improved with the transition of players and system. That’s been the biggest disappointment. I think our biggest strength—and what was getting us through—was our defensive integrity… We got away from that, especially on this last road trip. We have to get back to that, and we did tonight. That’s what puts us in every game. And we’ve gotta fix the offense. It’s been absolutely not acceptable.
I didn’t think we had a game like Philly [Houston’s 100-88 defeat on Monday] in us. For as good as the Phoenix game was—which I actually thought was one of the most complete wins we’ve had since I’ve been with the Rockets—the Philly game was probably the most incomplete game since I’ve been with the Rockets. So our consistency is bad. I really did not think we had a Philly game with us.
JCF: It’s no secret: This team has been labeled “soft.” Then Yao came out and admitted as much after that Philly game. Do you feel like this is a soft team?
DM: I don’t get into labels. I don’t know what that means. I think there were some positives in Yao’s comments in that he’s taking a leadership role. He’s looking in the mirror and saying, “How can I improve, and how can my teammates improve?” And that was the good. The negative was, preferably those things are addressed with the team and not through the media.
I think, overall, focusing on the positive, I think Yao and Tracy are taking real leadership roles and taking responsibility for the start and wanting to improve it. I think you get labeled soft when you’re losing and you get labeled tough when you’re winning. I think your chemistry’s bad when you’re losing and your chemistry’s good when you’re winning. I think there’s a lot of things that just get slapped on and added to winning and losing that aren’t causal.
JCF: Interesting you bring up the issue of leadership. A lot of people criticize Yao and T-Mac for not being strong enough leaders; that they’re lacking the killer instinct of a Kobe Bryant or the fire and toughness of a Rasheed Wallace. Do you feel like this team is missing that bulldog mentality, or that perhaps Jeff Van Gundy supplied it last year so now the guys are sort of trying to make up for that absence?
DM: I think people should look at Tracy’s dunk at the end of the first half, and Yao’s dunk in the 4th quarter tonight. I think they’re both human beings, they’re both extraordinarily talented. They’re both fairly young players in the league who are still in their prime. They’re both still learning how to… taking a leadership role isn’t something that is necessarily easy. It’s definitely not easy because winning’s hard. These guys are learning how to best lead the team forward.
JCF: Last time we spoke, you mentioned the team’s need for better play from the point guard position. Do you think that this team can ever be among the Western Conference elite with the point guard spot being what it is, considering the unbelievable talent at that position out West?
DM: Well, I think our performance says we’re not part of the elite. Until it’s better, we can’t put ourselves in that group. That said, I think all those teams at the top wish they had Yao Ming and are wondering how their center spot can get better. So, yes, relative to those other teams, the biggest gap is that position, but it’s probably, after center, the hardest position to get a great player.
I like how Rafer is really taking an aggressive mode to improve his play. Luther and his shooting, and his cutting, and his team defense is going to add a lot. And I think Steve, Mike and Aaron are all going to get a chance to show what they can do again. Right now, I think Rick has made his adjustments and he’s going to go with the rotation you saw tonight for a little while, and see how effective that is. We had to make a change at 11-11, because that’s not good enough.
JCF: This is the worst analogy ever, but I’ll make it anyway: When you’re an owner in a fantasy league going through a rough stretch, your first impulse is to make a move to shake up your team. What’s it like in the real world? Are you just itching to pull the trigger? Or is the opposite true, because you know that when guys are playing poorly their market value suffers, and opposing teams can hold you hostage?
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DM: A healthy chunk of the bad deals are made during any sort of desperate period. It’s absolutely the worst time to do a deal. Generally, any deal done not near some sort of deadline means you’re the one pushing it, which means you have to be the one who’s initiating the deal. It’s almost like when a company gets bought on Wall Street: They’re the ones initiating the purchase, so they end up having to pay 30% more. So I think there are natural times to do it, and the worst time is when there’s some sort of strong need or desperation.
We feel like we’ll always do a trade that makes sense to upgrade the team, but that said, Rick has so many options on his roster that we can almost effectively make quality trades just by manipulating minutes to other players who all, we feel, have a chance to contribute.
JCF: Last question, and I know you’re biased but I have to ask it anyway. Before the season began, we spoke about Yao’s place as the preeminent big man in the NBA. Has Dwight Howard taken over that role?
DM: Yao Ming’s still the best. I mean, I think the big thing in this league is consistent play, and we’ll wait ‘til Dwight’s done it for a few years before we even put him in the same conversation. - Jason Friedman