If it's possible to like what a team is doing and have no clue whether it'll ever work, then we present the Houston Rockets to amaze and confuse you.
Daryl Morey, the nerdy general manager with the high IQ and low patience, wins regularly in the off-season and yet the Rockets could miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year. They have roughly $20 million to spend this summer and that might not buy Dwight Howard or the right player. From top to bottom the franchise appears built and equipped to last but can hardly be considered elite by any definition.
James Harden is a top-three scorer, Jeremy Lin has jerseys that sell in distant countries and the Rockets are as must-see as it gets for a team living on the playoff edge. And yet if the Lakers finally figure it out and make a move up the standings, their footprints will be all over the eighth-place Rockets, pushing them down and out of the mix.
That's the Rockets, all dressed up with no place special to go, and a reasonable question to ask is … how's this possible?
They're a middle-of-the-pack team that scores in bunches but gives up a few, too, second-most in the league. Besides Harden the Rockets don't have another player that sends a shiver through anyone. They live too much by the jump shot. Their low-post presence is … well, there is none. They can't afford a long losing streak because the Lakers are poised to take advantage, and even if they do make the playoffs, how many games do you give Houston against the Spurs or Thunder?
But: Plenty of teams would love to swap places with the Rockets, even teams above them.
The most logical way to summarize them is to say Morey isn't done yet. Imagine that -- a GM who can't sit still is planning to make more moves, because he must. Despite all the activity of the last few years, the Rockets remain flexible, ready and able to absorb more contracts and change more faces as Morey keeps shuffling the deck to find a few aces. Based on transactions alone, he's busier than most GMs and, from the shape of his team, more successful than all but a few.
The Rockets have a solid All-Star in Harden, a functional point guard in Lin and center in Omer Asik, all just touching their primes. And Houston still has the funds and flexibility to add to that in the near future. That's why the Rockets are positioned well. They've got plenty of assets and little dead weight. Here in the era of the unforgiving salary cap and its punitive luxury tax rules, the Rockets are getting value for their dollar at the moment.
"Our goal is to improve our team now and set ourselves up to be a championship contender," Morey said. "We want to get back to being a title contender. That's our No. 1 goal. We're not there yet."
When Morey assumed the direction of the Rockets in 2007 they were in the fourth quarter of the Tracy McGrady-Yao Ming run. Both stars were too brittle to rely on for much longer and Morey gradually had to transition into another phase. Owner Leslie Alexander was sold on Morey's "Moneyball" approach to statistical analysis and ideas on how to build a winner while keeping a reasonable salary cap. Morey's philosophy is to keep stockpiling assets as cheaply as possible to remain in the conversation when it comes to trades and signing free agents.
Through all of this activity, the Rockets hoped to increase their chances of landing a star, the only way to win big in a league where stars dominate.
"To be a championship contender you have to pick high in the draft, or get those type of players," he said. "We haven't always chosen high in the draft so we set out to get those players."
Morey's draft history is very good when you consider his highest pick was No. 12. That's the price a team pays for being awfully mediocre, but picking low means the labor comes cheaper. Morey found Aaron Brooks at 26, Carl Landry at 31, Chandler Parsons at 38 and Chase Budinger at 44. His only whiffs were Patrick Patterson over Larry Sanders (now turning into a raw beast in Milwaukee) and Marcus Morris over Kawhi Leonard. But Patterson and Morris were used as important trading chips, so Morey did what all good GMs do: erase their mistakes quickly and efficiently.
A solid GM also recognizes the stress signs of another team. That's how Morey stole Lin and Asik last summer. In both cases he drew up contracts that would punish the Bulls and Knicks if they matched offers for those free agents. After giving good money to Joakim Noah, the Bulls couldn't tie up even more millions in Noah's backup. The Knicks would've been socked with a hefty luxury tax hit in the third year of Lin's deal, so they passed. And that was just the start of a fleecing run by Morey.
Realizing Oklahoma City was in a tough spot with Harden and his contract demands, Morey had the money and assets ready to make a deal. Not only could he pull the trigger for Harden, he had more than enough cap room to give Harden a max contract.
After signing Carlos Delfino last summer, Morey could sacrifice others in a trade without weakening the team, and that's how he squeezed the Kings for Thomas Robinson, the No. 5 pick. Look, Robinson was unimpressive with the Kings, but he's only 21 and the Rockets put themselves in position to give him a chance to become a solid player, without tapping into their prime assets. It was a worthy gamble. If Robinson is slow to develop, you figure Morey will use him to turn 50 cents into a dollar once again.
"We tried to move up to get Thomas Robinson in the draft." Morey said. "He led the country in rebounding. He can run the floor. He's a big-time athlete, a guy you want around the rim. We think he'll get quality minutes and turn into a quality player."
By back-ending deals for Lin and Asik, Morey kept the Rockets flexible enough to sign a player this summer, maybe two -- and that might've been his best strategy of all.
Howard will likely stay in L.A., where he can make the most money. But the Rockets gave themselves a chance, and that's all you can ask. Same for Josh Smith. He can stay with the hometown Hawks or go for a change of scenery with confidence. The Rockets have the money and they can sell Howard or Smith on Harden and a bunch of three-point shooters who can make their lives more comfortable in the lane.
Plus, if the Rockets miss on Howard and Smith, Morey can always use his money to trade for a star, or save for 2014 and a richer free agent class. In today's NBA, flexibility rules -- and if you have that and Harden, the choices and options are that much greater.
"When you have money under the cap there's a lot of things you can do," Morey said.
The money buys you a chance to get richer. Or in the case of the Rockets, busier. If that's possible. Should Morey keep his batting average high, the Rockets will eventually find what they're looking for. Until then, here in the stretch run of a transitional season, they just want to find the playoffs, an accomplishment Morey wanted to place in proper perspective:
"That's goal No. 2."