Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Rocket Launch: Morey is All In on Red

Before I begin, let me take a deep breath.

::Takes deep breath::

...Now that I found my namaste, it's all about figuring out what the hell just happened.

The short answer: The NBA's new "Super Team Era", and the Rockets' latest gamble that has launched their own new era.

And now for the long answer.

As soon as the NBA season ended with Kevin Durant hoisting the NBA Finals MVP and Larry O'Brien trophies, you could literally hear players colluding on how to build a team to counter the Goliath known as the Golden State Warriors. It's like the Power Rangers constructing a new Mega Zord to defeat the big, bad monster operating with a smidge of assistance from their GM's.

This new era didn't begin with Kevin Durant choosing the Warriors last summer. Some like to trace it back to the 2004 Lakers or the 2008 Celtics, but players had less influence on the league at that time. It began in 2010 when LeBron decided to form "The Heatles" with Dywane Wade and Chris Bosh, no matter how much he tries to deny it was a "super team". And losing 4-1 to  monster he indirectly created is how he was repaid.

Chris Paul was heavily rumored to go to the Spurs which seemed like a very natural fit and very likely to happen. It just made too much sense not to. Gregg Popovich would breathe life back into a franchise to extend the team's window to compete with the Warriors.

Then two weeks ago in an interview with Zach Lowe, Daryl Morey said, "We are used to long odds. If Golden State makes the odds longer, we might up our risk profile and get even more aggressive. We have something up our sleeve.”

Rule #1 of Rocket Club: don't doubt Daryl. Just like the name of this blog, when it comes to the NBA offseason, anything's in play for Mr. Morey.

Fast forward to Wednesday afternoon, and Chris Paul is a Houston Rocket. Instead of falling in love with the idea of being a Spur, Paul was said to be deterred by the team's focus on bringing back Tony Parker for prime minutes. Houston may have lost in an embarrassing fashion to San Antonio in the playoffs, but this at least felt like a counter punch to the stomach for Red Nation.

A team with an elite superstar who switched to point guard last season and led his team to the third-best record in the West while almost averaging a triple-double (29/11/8) signed a guy who is better than the aforementioned elite superstar at that position. And all this was AFTER three seasons of a painful guess and test with Dwight Howard, a square peg in a round hole and now a basketball vagabond. EVERYTHING went through Harden- and head coach Mike D'Antoni was fully comfortable with it...even if sitting Harden made it glaringly obvious the team lacked any other shot creators. Houston's offense seemed to click with James Harden at point guard, so why add another ball dominant player at the same position?

I will admit- I didn't favor this move as a primary focus. Yes, if Houston whiffed on Paul George and Blake Griffin, by all means adding Chris Paul would constitute a successful offseason. But imagining the pick and roll possibilities of James and Blake was quite tantalizing, and even I thought adding George was a pipe dream as his sights are rumored to be set for LA with a franchise making moves to look enticing.

But the more I settled into it throughout Wednesday, the more I thought of the possibilities. Harden would get to rest more often and not worry about who is directing the offense or creating shots. The two would likely coincide well oncourt together, as Paul would allow Harden to expend less energy trying to find his shot or creating for others, and Paul's midrange jumpers would keep defenses honest. Harden would feel less pressure to take every big shot, or answer every question pertaining to the team's success. I'm not saying he should shy away from accountability, but having another option to fall back on is quite alleviating on both Harden's physical and mental well-being.

Paul would also be a veteran presence to reign in Harden at times and his penchant for step back three-pointers, and keep him focused late in games. Last season and into the playoffs, Harden seemed to be a wild horse at times in regards to his shot selection and turnovers with only someone like Nene to calm him down and get him in check.

Another plus for Houston fans: Paul and Harden want to play together. This isn't a forced sports marriage, as Harden was said to be heavily recruiting CP3. And sure, there's plenty of time for it to go South like Dwight/James did, but at this stage in their careers and with the Warriors running roughshod on the league, I have a feeling both guys will be more open to making it work.

The downside to this deal? Paul has an option to go elsewhere next offseason if Houston doesn't work out or he simply can't play alongside Harden. It's been highly rumored since the "Summer of the Banana Boat" that CP3 longs to play with LeBron, Carmelo and Dywane. There's a lot of stars to align in making that possible, and who knows how this next season changes their minds respectively? If Paul were to leave, the Rockets gave up quite a lot to be left empty handed: Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Wiltjer, DeAndre Liggins, Darrun Hilliard, a 2018 top three protected 1st round pick and $661,000.

Houston does have leverage with Paul's full Bird rights, allowing them to go over the salary cap to sign him to a long-term deal worth as much as $205 million over five years.

But that is the gamble Daryl Morey took to stay competitive in the West. Why wait with an MVP-caliber star in Harden to win? That time is now, and any team with a little flexibility needs to have the same mindset. Outside of Dwight Howard, Morey struck out more often than not on players like Chris Bosh (who was ::this close:: to being a Rocket in 2014), Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Morey wouldn't make any move haphazardly without thinking of the possibilities. By trading for Paul before July 1st, this allows Houston a lot more flexibility with the cap. Instead of making moves to fit CP3 as a free-agent, Morey cleared rooms through a bevy of trades  to arm Houston with $8.4 million for mid-level exception players and $2.3 million bi-annual exception to avoid moving more contracts around. They could also group other players together to fit another potential deal that would create another $11 million trade exception.

From the looks of it, Morey isn't finished, either. The Rockets are still in the race to acquire Paul George or Carmelo Anthony- or hell, even Paul Millsap. Having two superstars is just the kind of appealing look to players looking to play for a contender and a change of scenery. And if they were fortunate enough to acquire Paul George, having a a trio with Paul and Harden would make re-signing very likely in 2018.

While swinging for the fences, Morey's ambition is to be admired. Throughout his tenure as Rockets GM since 2007, they've never fallen under .500 (32-32 in the shortened 2012 season, 41-41 in 2015-16). He's turned over rosters and wheeled and dealed, but never fully committed to a rebuilding process or tanked for a high draft pick. Houston during Morey's decade-long reign has never drafted higher than 12th overall.

Morey's low-key summer signings (head coach Mike D'Antoni included) last year weren't glamorous- but they produced results. This offseason, Morey is bringing out the biggest bat he has in hopes of getting that ever elusive trio of max-level superstars who can come together to be a real challenge for the Warriors.

Today is the day that launches Houston into their new era, and I am all in on red.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.