Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Some unfortunate fellow named Murphy figured this out the hard way and warned us, but every once in a while we are reminded painfully of the power of bad luck with plans that are too complicated. For Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, his encounter with the negative side of chance has his team struggling to even improve on last year after a summer of high hopes and a failed master plan.
Trouble is, Morey and his band of numbers-minded team execs across the NBA have followed the Moneyball/sabermetric revolutions in baseball in order to leave as little to chance as possible. In their top-down approach, execs handle advanced statistics and contract options like sacred commandments. And the now semi-annual free agency frenzies have in part been driven by these architects and their emphasis on keeping cap space free for runs at top players. Since his ascendance, Morey now competes with rising analytic execs like the Grizzlies’ John Hollinger, Morey’s own former protegée Sam Hinkie of the Sixers, Sam Presti in OKC and in-state rivals with the Spurs and Mavs.
But just like Billy Beane’s moneyballing crusade with the Oakland A’s, so far the financial prudence and super-analytic roster management have proven to be a less than exact science to winning the big hardware. In fact, science might be a stretch; these guys are finding that it’s more like alchemy. In this era of player-controlled contract lengths, the easiest short-term way to win is still to team up players that are simply better than everyone else. Aside from San Antonio’s quiet excellence, the Big Three method (in Boston and Miami) has proven just as effective. Even when the Mavericks won it all in 2011, Mark Cuban acknowledged all the unaccountable parts that go into champion-building.
Morey played it according to plan. Houston had added a stat load-bearer by acquiring Dwight Howard last summer, a move that was supposed to shore up the defense and allow better spacing for other scorers—proto-Nerd GM stuff. But coming into this year’s free agent season, Morey’s team looked far from contention status if the roster stayed the same, despite having had timely money available to scoop both Howard and James Harden when they were available. So Morey did what the Rockets always do: chased a star. Here’s how it went down, chronologically:
- The Rockets decided in-season not to trade Omer Asik and not to re-sign Chandler Parsons, instead letting the market develop for both.
- The Rockets agreed to trade Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans for a protected first-round pick and other assorted flotsam just before the draft.
- Morey began talks with agents for Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James to try to lure one to Houston. They also began talks with Pau Gasol as a third choice.
- The Rockets began serious talks with Chris Bosh after LeBron-to-Cleveland rumors got serious, offering Bosh a max contract.
- LeBron signed with the Cavs.
- The Rockets shipped off Jeremy Lin and a protected first round pick to the Lakers just to get Lin off the books to prepare a max contract for somebody (anybody).
- Carmelo re-signed with the Knicks.
- Bosh re-signed with the Heat.
- Parsons took a monster deal in Dallas which the Rockets didn’t match for value reasons.
- Gasol signed with Chicago.
- The Asik trade became a three-way sign-and-trade also involving the Pelicans which brought Ariza back to the Rockets.
For those of you keeping count, for all the cap maneuvering, the net total on the Rockets offseason so far = -(Asik, Parsons, and Lin) + Ariza. They have a ton of cap flexibility to do what every other team who missed out on LeBron and Melo will do—wait for next year. Morey’s commitment to not overpaying players puts him in a bind now: his team has also lost leverage in trade and free agency negotiations and a crucial extra first round pick to use as trade bait. Minus the pipe dream of luring Kevin Love over, there aren’t too many good scenarios out there. This would be a bad offseason for any executive, much less one whose pride is in manipulating numbers to draw stars.
But that’s the danger of the newfangled cap engineering that Morey and his acolytes are known for. The sheer complexity of the deals Morey needed to execute to even open up a potential spot for a free agent depended on at least four or five other decisions. Contrast that with the greatest trades in Houston history, for a “past-prime” Clyde Drexler or giving up draft picks for a two-time MVP Moses Malone. Though times are different, chasing free agents leaves much more up to chance than adding stars through other avenues.
This isn’t to say Morey isn’t a great executive, and although he has whiffed on this summer and come up short in free agency plays before, the man constantly puts together a good team and doesn’t drive the franchise into a hole with bad contracts. He’ll live to chase another star, another day. But being able to engineer these “runs” in free agency isn’t actually an assurance that they’ll happen. In fact, the competitive advantage of analytics will soon be lessened as more teams find more MIT graduates to run things. In the end, Morey will still be a major player for future free agents, including when Kevin Durant hits the market. For now though, Morey’s further proof that the old Law still applies, even to new math.