The Houston Rockets have emerged in recent years as a perennial contender in the Western Conference. This was considered inevitable a few years ago when they drafted Yao Ming. (Wait, it's been seven years since they drafted him?! Well, then. I'm feeling old this morning.) But perhaps as valuable as Yao or Tracy McGrady over that span has been Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who took over the team from Carrol Dawson in 2007.
Since then, he's set about overhauling a roster that once revolved around oft-injured stars McGrady and Ming, and now is full of talent that's young, spry, and most important, versatile. Players like Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes can do a variety of things to help a basketball team, and do them from a variety of positions on the floor. But perhaps his most cherished piece to play with is Shane Battier, a swingman who can guard just about any position on the floor outside of the opponent's center, and matches his defensive prowess with deadly efficiency on offense. For a basketball team, that kind of player just makes sense.
And you could say the same for just about every single player on Houston's roster (save for McGrady, who Morey would gladly trade, if not for the glaring lack of interest from teams throughout the league). Everyone serves a purpose on that roster, and many of the players excel in doing the "little things" that help teams win. Carl Landry, Chuck Hayes, Trevor Ariza, Battier, Aaron Brooks, Brent Barry--they all do one thing or another very well, and in theory, the parts should add up to form a dominant, cohesive basketball team.
But that's the thing: it's still unclear if it'll shake out that way. Can a bunch of guys that excel at the "little things" do the "big thing," which is "win"?
It's almost as if the Houston Rockets are a thought experiment playing out before our eyes. And last year's playoff series was a strong indicator as to the longterm prognosis for this sort of strategy: you can win, but not that much.
The Rockets dispatched Portland--a team with stars like Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge, but lacking in guys that excel in the less glamorous areas of the game--4-2, making quick work of the burgeoning Blazers group. But then, the real test: what about beating the Lakers? They played Los Angeles tough for the entire series, and pushed things much further than anyone expected.
But then, in the deciding seventh game, they got blown out by a team with star power that dwarfed their own. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and company ran them off the court, and when the dust settled, it seemed as they though Houston had been exposed. A well-coached team, with plenty of fight in 'em, but one that simply doesn't belong in the conversation when discussing the NBA elite.
This year, with Yao Ming out for the season and Tracy McGrady on the shelf for who-knows-how-long, it seems we're in for more of that same thought experiment, only this time for an entire season. How will this play out? It's anybody's guess, but I think if last year's Lakers series proved anything, it's that simply by fighting hard every game and showing up to play, an above-average group stands to compete with even the very best the NBA has to offer.
In other words, by assembling this group, Darryl Morey hasn't put together a championship team, but one that will nonetheless win 45-50 games a year based solely on effort that surpasses that of their peers. Will they win anything more than that? Go far in the playoffs? Shock the world? Probably not. There's only so much you can do in the NBA without a dominant franchise player. No matter what your coach says, the sky is not the limit if Luis Scola is your best offensive option. In the NBA, you need a superstar (one, at least) to win big.
But when you think about it, while teams like the 76ers and Raptors strike out on fool's gold free agents like Elton Brand and Hedo Turkoglu, Morey's strategy is not a bad way to bide your time. As a franchise waiting for a superstar to come along that can take them to the promised land, the Rockets are still very good, and competitive every night--preying on teams that are content to take the night off and loaf up-and-down the court. For Rockets fans, that's a pretty great consolation prize if they're not going to be a true title contender. So while the thought experiment might be considered a failure, Darryl Morey's definitely doing something right out there in Houston.