There's a picture on Daryl Morey's Facebook page that is almost exactly five years old.
It's a picture from a July trip to Las Vegas for the NBA's Summer League, and presumably a night of unwinding in one of the casinos playing some blackjack. The caption to the picture says "Rockets win and then this in blackjack. Not bad."
"This" is four hands of blackjack after two splits of aces, a scenario where the odds are like the same as two strangers having identical DNA. It's an amazing and an appropriate metaphor for how the last two offseasons have gone for the Houston Rockets.
In 2012, they brought in James Harden for Kevin Martin's expiring contract, a late lottery pick (became Steven Adams), and some other slop. In 2013, they sold Dwight Howard on charting his next four (hopefully) years here in Houston.
In 2014, what's the appropriate blackjack metaphor?
After last Friday afternoon, when LeBron James decided to return to Cleveland, and hope was at an all-time high that Chris Bosh would become a Rocket, Morey was metaphorically sitting on a 20 while the dealer (who in this case was Pat Riley) had a six showing.
Unfortunately, when Riley turned over his face down card, it was a five (as in five years guaranteed). The next card was a jack (as in Bosh, you "jack ass," don't do it!).
Twenty one. Bosh went back to Miami.
From there, the rest of the weekend felt like the blackjack equivalent of return trip after return trip to the ATM, with the final bottoming out being the decision to allow Chandler Parsons to take his talents north up Interstate 45 to Dallas. If the metaphorical casino in question were in lake Charles, all that was left was the miserable two hour ride home.
However, Daryl Morey definitely doesn't see it that way. He would argue the rest of the weekend and the subsequent decisions, including letting Parsons go (hell, maybe especially letting Parsons go) was more like opting to stay away from the table, breaking even, leaving some money in the account, so that you can live to play cards another day.
Rocket fans loved Chandler Parsons, but in Morey's mind, the book on winning titles is the book of three -- as in, you have to have three All-Star players in order to compete. Until you have those three players, you overpay for nothing, and hoard anything of value.
Flexibility, asset compiling. Unfortunately, this is where Bosh's decision (the far more important decision on Friday to Houston) has left this team.
Morey, to his credit, unlike other GM's, will make the media rounds even after bad days. He doesn't just bask in the afterglow of Dwight, he will face the firing line after striking out on Bosh and allowing a popular player like Parsons to leave. He joined Nick Wright and John Lopez on SportsRadio 610 on Monday morning and addressed the events that went down over the last three days. Here are some excerpts from Morey:
On the emotions of the last weekend "Obviously, it's been very tough. We felt like we were on our way there to potentially having the best team in the NBA, if we signed Bosh and matched Parsons, but we feel great about where we are at as well, with the youngest playoff team last year. The way to improve going into this season [we felt] was with the full mid-level exception, with the trade exception, with the draft pick [from the Pelicans in the Asik trade] that's structured like a guaranteed lottery pick like the one that got us James Harden.... We feel pretty good going forward, but it was tough because we were right at the precipice of being the best team in the NBA."
On if he regrets not exercising Parsons' $1 million option for 2014-2105 "(laughs) That's obviously one of the key decisions we made, and obviously it almost paid off... yes, if you know everything about how things are going to play out, and everything about what's going to happen, then you might play that differently, but a lot goes into those decisions. Way more than people might realize."
On the thought process as free agents this offseason fell by the wayside "Every single move we make, every single decision we make is 'What move will up our championship odds?', not 'get us to first round and lose', not "get to the second round and maybe lose there.' Everything we do is about 'How can we make a championship Houston Rocket r team.' .... It takes at least three elite players with very little exception throughout history. It takes three elite players and a good set of players that fit around them. Once Bosh said 'No,' it put us into another very difficult decision of 'Do we have a better chance of winning a title by matching [Dallas' offer to Parsons] or not matching it?' That comes down to a very simple question 'Are Harden/Howard/Parsons a three that can be a championship three?'"
On whether Harden/Howard/Parsons can be a championship three "I actually think it can be, I think Chandler is a great player, getting better, a really, really good player, no doubt, but the question we got to was 'Is Harden/Howard/Parsons better than the team we can put together with Harden/Howard, a guaranteed lottery pick, trade exceptions, mid level, a young team improving and continuing to be flexible?' It was not close, I wish it was close, but it was not close."
On his confidence that Parsons' would be back when they decided to turn down team option "We were quite confident Chandler would be back, we were wiling to go very far on Chandler...the issue is the way things are structured with Chandler. [Matching Dallas' offer] literally meant we had to bet with no doubt on a Harden/Howard/Parsons core. There's no matching that and then if it doesn't work, then just going on to the next thing. Now, we ARE betting on Harden and Howard, so if people want to criticize that, they can. That is a bet we are making, but with how Parsons' [offer sheet] was structured, that core has to do it, because there's no changing that core. It's an artfully structured contract, such that small markets wouldn't be able to bet on Chandler staying, and big markets who want flexibility won't want it so he can't stay. It's got a huge trade bonus, such that his contract goes up in lock step if the cap goes up. It forced a very clear decision [for us]."
On whether or not the Rockets got worse this weekend "We think by this year's playoff, we will be a better team than we were last year, and we will continue to be an improving team that can go much farther."
On how Harden and Howard look at their Rockets tenure now "Both of those guys are very enthusiastic about where we are right now. We know we need to be a top 10 defense to be a championship level team. That was one other issue...we felt like to get to be a top 10 defense, we needed a wing defender. Now three of our top five guys are top defenders in the league, that'll give us a chance. I'm in conversations with James Harden and Dwight Howard all the time. They're very enthusiastic about where we are."
On Dwight Howard and how he feels about the current team "Dwight Howard has been through it. He's been through [being] on a team that was close to winning, but because of a lot of the moves around him, they got completely locked in with no ability to continue to improve the team, so he knows first hand the value of being able to continue to improve."
On why the Rockets will be better come the playoffs "Ok, start with [our being] the youngest playoff team last year, which bodes really well. Patrick Beverley going into his second year, Terrence Jones is going to be 23 this year, isaiah Canaan is coming down the pipe. We are very likely to bring Troy Daniels back, Donatas [Motiejunas], Nick Johnson who we just drafted. James Harden is 24 and is first team all-NBA, he is gonna be better next year. We are going to be better in general. Second, we have the full mid level exception, we got trade exceptions, we got a draft pick structured like the one that netted us James Harden two years ago."
On their flexibility if they don't win a title in 2015 "Let's say we don't win the title...next year we are set up again. We can improve our team, make it better than it was last year, and at same time continue to focus on putting together a championship team, which is literally the only thing I do."
On LeBron's (and others') free agency recruitment "Rich Paul and their camp, they were very close to the vest. Very private process, and we respected that. Carmelo did it the way I would have done it. I would want to visit where I want to go. I like how he handled it. Chris [Bosh] was a more private process as well. Dwight took meetings all in one city, in LA. It's a different process each time. We respect how a player wants to do it."
On his philosophy on taking risks "We go for it, man. We are just about getting a championship. Sometimes, you swing for it and get the guy like Harden and Howard the last two summers. Sometime, you swing for it and don't get it. That happens. The key is to stay in the game and focus on just one thing -- 'Will we be more likely to be a championship team this way or that way?'"
On the decision to let Chandler Parsons go "When it came down to the Parsons decision, that was obviously a big, important one last night. We definiitely have a better chance to be a championship team by not matching [Dallas offer sheet] than by matching it. It's not a linear thing, bottom line -- teams that win the title, they FIND the 'Chandler Parsons.' We can't be the organization that limits flexibility and locks us in and guarantees that we CAN'T win the title by PAYING 'Chandler Parsons.' We have to be the organization that FINDS those guys, not the organization that PAYS them."
On determining player value "When you have your core that you feel can be the championship core, you can really almost pay anything to anyone at that point, because you're just putting the final frosting on the championship cake. Until that point, you will hurt your odds of winning the championship if you make moves that eliminate your chances to improve. That's the issue with the mid tier contracts."
On if there were a scenario where matching Dallas' offer made sense "Once you have Bosh, paying Chandler anything is fine. You can pay him 100 million dollars, it'd be fine. Now you have a team with a young core, now you have a team that will be in the top three to win the NBA title. If you lock all that in prior to having your core, you are limiting your odds of winning the championship. Matching chandler if we don't have Bosh, we felt would drop our championship odds in a big way because it would limit our ability to keep improving."
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.
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